Chain of kidney donations saves Berwyn man's life

Berwyn, IL

Berwyn resident Alex Zahrobsky had no qualms about giving her brother, Kris, a kidney to help him overcome hydronephrosis, a congenital kidney defect.

The only problem was that she wasn’t a match.

Through a Northwestern Memorial Hospital program, Alex was able to partner up with two other families, each with one member in need of a kidney and another member ready to donate.

On Dec. 23, Alex donated her kidney to a 55-year-old Aurora man, whose sister then donated a kidney to a 52-year-old Chicago woman. That woman’s daughter then completed the circle and donated a kidney to Alex’s brother, Kris.

“I’m extremely happy, with everything and the way it went,” said Alex. “It was a long experience, but it was an exciting one. At first, I didn’t even know my blood type. It was just an overall cool experience.”

Although Kris still faces months of recovery time and testing, he’s thrilled with the way the surgery turned out.

“I can already tell the effects,” he said. “If you sort through the pain and you sort through all the recovery issues, the first and foremost thing is that I have more energy. I don’t take naps anymore.”

According to Jim Zahrobsky, the father of Kris and Alex, Kris was born with a defect that caused his kidneys to shut down last year at the age of 30. Kris and Alex went on a transplant list in October, and three months later they were paired with two other families. They were not allowed to meet the other families until a week after the surgeries were complete.

“Meeting all of the families went wonderfully,” Jim said. “The three recipients are happy to have kidneys, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to continue life, and the donors were happy to give.”

At the age of 19, Alex is not only the youngest person in the kidney donation circle, she’s likely the toughest. She returned on Monday to Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. to take place in a January study session and hopes to return to playing soccer in the spring.

“My parents have already paid for it, so I might as well go,” Alex said of returning to school less than two weeks after her surgery. “I can get extra credits, and it’s only one class a day.”

Despite Alex’s quick recovery, she’s still dealing with the aftermath of her life-saving donation.

“If you make, like, a quick movement or an awkward movement, you can still feel that something’s wrong — something’s not there,” she said.

Now that the surgery is over, Kris hopes to be back to his job as the national service manager for Reliable Fire Equipment by April 1, and he’s already started to live life in a new way.

“It’s a whole new lease on life,” Kris said. “I was on a real restricted diet, and one of the first meals I ate when I could actually stomach it was a hot dog. I went to Portillo’s.”

The Zahrobsky’s decided to delay exchanging gifts this year because the surgeries came so close to Christmas, but that doesn’t mean they’ve scaled back their plans for this year.

“The kidney is Alex’s present for the rest of my life. Believe me, I told her, ‘don’t ever buy me anything ever again,’” Kris said. “There are plans to get Alex a huge present. It will probably be the best present I’ve ever bought.”

Northwestern’s paired donor transplants

The Zahrobskys are not alone. Joseph Leventhal, the director of Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s kidney transplant program, estimated that 20 to 30 percent of its kidney transplants are the result of a computer-driven paired exchange program.

“It's really driven by having a critical mass of individuals in the pool and then interrogating with the software we have,” Leventhal said.

According to Leventhal, the procedure is gaining momentum and popularity as more and more people find themselves in need of a new kidney.

“I would say we have one of the most active paired exchange programs in Illinois,” Leventhal said. “It’s something that is becoming more common across the country, and there is an effort to start a nationwide program.”

For more information about Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s pair-donor transplants, visit www.nmh.org or call (312) 926-2000.