Glenn Graham (l.) donated a kidney to his friend Cecil Hogue in 2018.
Glenn Graham and Cecil Hogue have been best friends since third grade. That friendship took a step beyond the routine in 2018 when Graham donated a kidney to save Hogue’s life. “It was an opportunity to help a very good friend and his family,” Graham said. “I was happy to do it.”
Kidney Function Goes from Bad to Worse
In August 2016, doctors told Hogue his kidneys weren’t functioning properly. At the rate they were deteriorating, he would eventually need dialysis or a kidney transplant. Neither option sounded good to Hogue, now 56 and living in Greensboro, NC.
Dialysis requires a strict regimen. Kidney transplant can be a long, hard road. The average wait for a kidney from a deceased donor in the U.S. is three to five years -- longer in some regions. Each year on the waiting list or on dialysis lowers the odds of a good outcome after the transplant.
By the spring of 2017, Hogue didn’t have much choice. His kidneys had started to fail. By September of that year, his doctors were preparing to place him on the kidney transplant waitlist.
Best Friend Donates Kidney
Unbeknownst to Hogue, his buddy Graham was thinking about his own options. His decision became clear after he learned Hogue’s daughter had tried to donate but wasn’t a suitable donor. Graham talked to his own family. They agreed with his decision. He called Duke to see if he could donate one of his healthy kidneys to save his best friend’s life.
“I’m in good health, no medical issues," said Graham, now 56 and living in Upper Marlboro, MD. “I didn’t see any negative consequences. I saw it as an opportunity to help.”
Without telling his friend, Graham went to Duke for compatibility tests and learned he was a good match. He surprised Hogue with the good news in October.
“It was an emotional moment,” Hogue recalled. “It is bigger than life that somebody, without you asking, steps up to do this.”
Living donor kidneys "work better, last longer, and the people who get them have fewer complications.”
Safe, Successful, Living-Donor Kidney Transplant
Hogue’s and Graham’s surgeries took place on January 4, 2018. Both men did well. That’s typical of a living-donor kidney transplant, said Matthew Ellis, MD, a transplant specialist at Duke.
“Donating a kidney is very safe,” he said. “In an experienced transplant center like Duke, it is rare for a patient to have a major complication.”
The Duke surgeons use small incisions to remove the kidney and perform the transplant. The minimally invasive techniques can help people recover faster. Typically, living kidney donors leave the hospital within 48 hours of the procedure and return to work a few weeks later. Normally, it has no impact on their health or life expectancy.
The big difference is felt by the recipient. “The kidneys work better, last longer, and the people who get them have fewer complications,” Dr. Ellis said. “People need to know what a big gift it is to the recipient when someone donates a kidney.”
Matching Donors and Recipients
Dr. Ellis encourages people who are thinking about donating a kidney to make an appointment to be evaluated. Too often, he said, people rule themselves out too soon.
There is another option as well. If a donor doesn’t match with their intended recipient, they may be able to take part in a paired exchange. When this occurs, two donor and recipient pairs who can’t donate directly can swap compatible organs to achieve successful transplants.
A third option occurs when the living donor is someone who donates purely for altruistic reasons. These altruistic donors can start a domino effect. “With just one donation they can trigger multiple transplants,” Dr. Ellis said.