Lewis-Clark State College's head tennis coach Kai Fong has made the news many times for his teams' accomplishments on the court during his 26 seasons with the Warriors. On Wednesday, however, the longtime coach was recognized for an altruistic act that triggered a chain of life saving events.
In a press release, the communications department at Piedmont Transplant Institute in Atlanta revealed Fong's donation of a kidney to a stranger in 2012. His donation began a living-donor kidney chain with nearly a dozen other people stepping forward as donors—leading to 11 people across the United States receiving needed kidneys.
Though he has kept his organ donation private for more than a year, Fong says that he's willing to come forward with the story now because he'd like others to consider donating as well.
"I am ready to share this now because as a healthy living donor not experiencing any complications whatsoever, I want to tell people that it is safe to donate to help save lives," Fong said. "There are many who need a kidney transplant, and there many healthy individuals who can spare a kidney without putting themselves in harm's way. It is a scary thought to give away one kidney but science has proven that we can function efficiently with only one, so why not donate the other to help save lives. People should at least sign up to be an organ donor on their driver's license."
Living-donor kidney chains begin when a Good Samaritan such as Fong steps forward to donate a kidney to a patient in need. The chain is continued when a friend or relative of the patient, who was ready to donate but was not a match, decides to donate to someone else in need, and so on. The chain ends when a bridge donor is not available.
Marietta, Ga. resident Phyllis Anderson waited five years for a kidney before Fong came forward as a donor and was found to be a match. Anderson suffers from diabetes and found herself battling end stage renal disease during a bout with pneumonia in 2005. Because of Fong's gift, Anderson no longer has to endure dialysis several times a week (which she did for seven years prior to the transplant).
After Phyllis received the kidney she needed, her husband, Steve Anderson, decided donating a kidney to a stranger was "a no-brainer" after a stranger did the same for his wife. Anderson's kidney was matched with a recipient in Dallas, Texas, and in January 2013, he flew to Texas to donate his kidney.
"Once Mr. Anderson donated his kidney, the chain went on to help seven people in Texas, Michigan and New Jersey get the kidneys they needed," said Miguel Tan, M.D. of Piedmont Atlanta. "Paired kidney exchanges like this one are essential to helping us save more lives as the need for transplantation continues to increase while the number of deceased kidney donors has steadily declined."
Although he ended up donating to a complete stranger, Fong originally hoped his kidney would be a match for Monika Pande, a fellow employee at LCSC and sufferer of the kidney disease IgA nephropathy.
"Monika Pande's story struck a note with me," said Fong. "After some online research about kidney donations, I compared the kidney transplant surgery/recovery to my 10-day perforated appendix/peritonitis ordeal in 2009. The deduction was that the kidney transplant would be a stroll in the park. I approached Monika about my willingness and she graciously accepted my offer which included being a paired donor in the event that our blood types did not match for a direct transplant."
Their blood types did not match, however, Pande was notified of a deceased organ donor that was a clear match in 2012. Pande, who had been on dialysis for four years, underwent the life-saving surgery in June of that year.
With the success of Pande's transplant surgery, Fong was then unpaired, meaning he could either step away from the deal and be declassified as a donor or he could enter into the system as a non-directed living donor.
Fong said the choice was made easier by the generosity people have shown him over the years.
"I have been and still am on the receiving end of so many generous hands and hearts," he said. "People are always doing things for me, making my life easier. I can never repay everything accorded to me, so the alternative is to pay it forward to spread the goodwill."
The call came after about two months of waiting as a non-directed living donor. He was flown to Atlanta where he underwent a series of tests followed by a three-hour surgery at Piedmont on July 27. After a few days of recovery, Fong then had the chance to meet the Andersons at the hospital.
"Originally, I was very hesitant to meet the recipient because I wanted to do this anonymously. But I am so glad I changed my mind as I now have a newfound relative in the South."
Fong also reunited with the couple in Atlanta in July of 2013 when he returned to Piedmont for his first annual mandatory checkup.
The LCSC tennis coach jokingly said the hardest part of being a kidney donor for him was the interviews and evaluations conducted at the onset.
"I understood the necessity to ask and inform as they wanted confirmation that I am of sound mind and body... Good thing they did not interview people around me as they would have gotten conflicting reports about my sanity," Fong said with a smile.
"I would donate another kidney or organ today if biologically possible. Deciding to donate was the easiest part of the entire process. Being a donor, I got to travel, got to meet some very nice people, got through airport security in a wheelchair, got a little pampering while all the hospital staff had to work around me. I just went to sleep on surgery day and woke up with one less kidney. That, anyone can do."
Though nearly a dozen lives were saved as a result of the chain reaction Fong's altruistic donation set off, there are still nearly 99,000 people currently waiting for kidney transplants in the United States. Yet, only 14,000 kidney transplants are performed each year.
"Living donors and paired kidney exchanges address this challenge by making it possible for us to create a larger pool of potential, good quality living donors," said Dr. Tan. "Living kidney donation has, and will continue to, improve outcomes and access to transplantation by decreasing wait times, improving long-term outcomes and lowering the number of people on the deceased donor waiting list."
For more information on becoming a living organ donor, visit www.piedmonttransplant.org.