BOSTON (AP) - A hospital has started an unusual organ-donation program for people with family members awaiting a kidney transplant: Donate one of your kidneys to a stranger and your loved one will move up on the waiting list.
The program at New England Medical Center, believed to be the first of its kind, was approved in February after nine months of review by the United Network of Organ Sharing, the nonprofit agency that coordinates organ donation nationwide.
The program, called Hope Through Sharing, could ease the critical shortage of donor organs, doctors say. Also, it will allow willing donors who do not have compatible organs to help loved ones anyway. So far, the program involves only kidneys.
The program has raised ethical questions because federal law prohibits buying or selling organs.
But Dr. Richard Rohrer, the hospital's chief of transplant surgery, said the only benefit the donor receives for the kidney is another kidney for his or her loved one.
"It is assigning a value to a kidney donation, and the value is exactly a kidney," he said. "On that basis we feel very comfortable."
Dr. Mark D. Fox, medical ethicist at University of Rochester Medical Center, said while the program gives an advantage to people on the waiting list who know willing donors, everyone benefits in the end.
"It's really a good-faith donation," said Fox, who served on the UNOS panel that evaluated the program.
Of the 75,000 people waiting for an organ transplant nationally, about 48,000 need a kidney. The average wait nationally is five years; it is three to four years in Massachusetts.
Normally, kidneys are distributed according to how long a patient has been waiting - unless the patient has a friend or relative who can donate a compatible organ.
Richard Luskin of the New England Organ Bank said the program could cut the waiting time. "It's really an addition to the total available pool of organs, and that's why it's so important," he said.
In addition to winning approval of UNOS, the plan passed muster with New England's 15 organ transplant centers.
Susan Stephens donated one of her kidneys to a stranger in Greece to move her 13-year-old son, Corey, to the top of the kidney waiting list, reducing a possible 18-month wait to a few weeks. He received his new kidney last month.
"I'm glad it's that it's over," Stephens said. "Without this type of program, there would be a lot of suffering."
Rohrer said the exchange program could work with lungs and livers, though those transplants are more complicated, and would raise additional ethical issues.
"Kidneys are primarily distributed by waiting time," he said. "Livers and lungs are distributed based on urgency and there is no dialysis. Figuring out exactly how to give the priority is an issue."