‘Seems like a no-brainer’: Utah woman donates kidney to friend through national registry

Apr 21, 2022, 6:40 PM | Updated: Jun 20, 2022, 1:44 pm

PARK CITY, Utah — Not long ago, if you wanted to donate a kidney to a loved one, the odds were usually against you. You likely weren’t the right match. Now, thanks to the power of large numbers and algorithms and the National Kidney Registry, that doesn’t matter anymore.

“For our recipients, it’s really kind of game-changing,” said Intermountain Healthcare nephrologist Dr. Donald Morris. “It really opens up the pool drastically for our recipients.”

The registry was founded by businessman Garet Hil in 2007 after he had a difficult time finding a match for his daughter who was diagnosed with kidney failure at age 10.

The registry overcomes incompatible donors and recipients by swapping kidneys between donor-recipient pairs and connecting them in chains.

Courtney Harkins, of Park City, wanted to donate a kidney to Terry Bargar, of Boston. Bargar is her best friend’s mom and a second mom to her, she said. Harkins’ kidney, however, was incompatible.

The registry entered Harkins’ information into their database and found out her kidney was a match for a patient in San Francisco and that person’s donor matched Bargar, so they swapped kidneys.

“I love the (Bargar) family and was able to sort of continue their family through the kidney. And you know, really make sure that this family remains part of my family, too,” Harkins says.

Courtney Harkins, of Park City, donated her kidney to a longtime family friend. (KSL TV) Intermountain Healthcare's Dr. Donald Morris. (KSL TV) Courtney Harkins in the hospital for the transplant procedure. (Courtney Harkins) Courtney loves to ski and mountain bike. She has resumed those activities after the transplant surgery. (Courtney Harkins)

The registry, using a network of one hundred transplant centers, including Intermountain Transplant Services, where Morris works, facilitates more than 450 such paired exchanges every year.

“Most of the time, we can get a better match, because it’s such a larger pool throughout the country,” Morris said.

The larger pool paired with high-resolution epilate matching, a more advanced method of matching kidneys with recipients, means the organs will last much longer.

“We’re able to not use so much medication to reduce the immune system,” he said. “So that we hope that also will translate into fewer complications after kidney transplant.”

The registry now has a voucher program. Donors can donate kidneys now and get a voucher. If someone in their family needs a kidney in the future, they will be paired with a living donor.

Hil donated a kidney in 2015 in case his daughter needs another transplant in the future.

Harkins, who had been a competitive skier and still skis and mountain bikes, donated her kidney and was back on the slopes just a few weeks later.

“I’m still able to ski as hard as I was able to ski last season. I’m still able to mountain bike. I’m still able to run,” Harkins said.

“It’s a strange thing to save someone’s life even though I don’t really feel like I save someone’s life because to me it just seems like such a no-brainer,” Harkins said.

Meanwhile, Bargar can now do what she wanted to do – play with her grandchild.

“It’s the selflessness that it takes to do this. There’s no thanks that I can ever give Courtney that will be enough,” Bargar said. “I mean, how do you thank somebody for giving you life?”

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‘Seems like a no-brainer’: Utah woman donates kidney to friend through national registry