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Alabama man gives kidney to stranger

Murrells Inlet resident met donor on Web site where patients post their profiles

by Jill Coley
Of The Post and Courier
About two years ago, Thomas Burns, a 50-year-old father of five from Mobile, Ala., decided to give away his kidney. He was not aiming to help a family member or a lifelong friend. He wanted to save a stranger.
Burns realized that wish at MUSC April 8, when surgeons removed one of his kidneys and transplanted the organ into Dieter Illhardt, 70, of Murrells Inlet.
The two met on, a Web site where patients post their profiles and potential donors search for a life they want to save.
Illhardt, a retiree with a sharp German accent, worked 40 years for electronic manufacturing giant Siemens, laboring on large rotating equipment and liquid ring vacuum pumps.
He suffers from diabetes and has been on dialysis for 11 months. “It is hell. I cannot describe it,” Illhardt said of the blood-cleansing treatments that can last for four hours or longer. Kidney failure affects between 10 percent and 40 percent of people with diabetes.
The kidneys’ main function is to clear waste material from the blood. The two organs also regulate salt and potassium and produce hormones that affect blood pressure and red-blood cell production. A healthy person should be able to live with one kidney, which will compensate for the lost organ.
Illhardt’s wife could not donate her kidney because of her age, and their daughter has diabetes, ruling her out.
“It means to get a new life,” Illhardt said of receiving a kidney. “Being on dialysis, you’re not living.”
As for what drove Burns to donate part of his body, Illhardt shook his head in amazement.
Burns, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound retired Army sergeant, looks as strong as the trees he cuts for a living.
“The biggest trigger for me is seeing what kids watch on TV,” Burns said. “They need to understand everything about life is not just about money. You need to leave a footprint on Earth.”
Burns said it was important to him to know who got his kidney. When he met the Illhardts, Burns said, “I was reminded of my mother and dad. I felt something there.”
About two out of every five kidney transplants are from live donors, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a national registry that matches recipients with cadaver organs.
The network lists 675 people in South Carolina waiting for a kidney. The average waiting time in the state is two to three years, although 146 patients have been waiting for five years or longer.
Usually, live donors are friends or family of the recipient. During the past five years, sites such as, which charge recipients a subscription fee, have become more popular.
Kidneys from live donors are desirable because they are tested thoroughly, and they last longer than kidneys from cadavers.
But some are skeptical of Internet matching. Arthur Caplan, Center for Bioethics director at the University of Pennsylvania, compared the pitfalls to Internet dating.
Participants might not be telling the truth about themselves, he said, and relationships could turn manipulative. “Online tends to open the door to an underground market,” he said.
Also, if more and more people trade organs via the Internet, the traditional registry system might be eroded, bioethicists warn. The United Network for Organ Sharing ranks potential recipients according to objective medical criteria.
Dr. Kenneth Chavin, a specialist in transplant surgery who removed Burns’ kidney, compared live organ donation to frequent blood donors. “People, out of the goodness of their hearts, step forward.”
A couple of anonymous live donors have made themselves available through the transplant program at MUSC. One was a father whose son received a kidney from a deceased donor, said Dr. Prabhakar Baliga, head of MUSC’s transplant surgery division.
As nurses and doctors prepared Burns for surgery Tuesday, he gave his wife, Carla, a wink. The two clasped hands, and her chest fell in a deep sigh.
Donor and recipient were recovering during the afternoon following a successful surgery.

Editor’s note: The article ran April 9 in The Post and Courier and is reprinted with permission.

Organs for Sale? Thinking about Transplantation’ lecture to be held
The lecture, “Organs for sale? Thinking about Transplantation,” will take place at 4 p.m. April 21 in St. Luke’s Chapel (corner of Bee Street and Ashley Avenue). Sponsored by the Caritas Fellowship, the lecture is open to the public and will be given by Gilbert Meilaender, Ph.D.
Meilaender is the Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics since its inception, and a Fellow of the Hastings Center.
A prominent and influential bioethicist, Meilaender has had an important role in advising the president and leading the public conversation regarding the difficult matters of embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and other topics arising from biomedical research.
Caritas, sponsored by the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, meets at noon every Thursday on the MUSC campus. For more information, call Fr. Patrick Allen 722-2024 or e-mail


Friday, April 18, 2008
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