Written by Alex Crees
Two strangers living across the world from each other in the U.S. and Greece made medical history when they became the first to donate their kidneys in an intercontinental paired exchange, according to a press conference Friday at the Greek Embassy in Washington, DC.
Oklahoma resident Elizabeth Gay donated one of her kidneys to a Greek man living in Athens. In return, the man’s wife Theodora Papaioannou-Helmis donated her kidney to a man living in Pennsylvania.
These initial exchanges have sparked a donor chain that has so far saved the lives of four Americans and one Greek resident, with three more transplants scheduled in the coming weeks. In the upcoming transplants, a donor from Trinidad and Tobago will enter the chain as well.
The donor chain process, known as kidney paired donation (KPD), happens when a donor who is incompatible with a designated recipient agrees to donate his or her kidney to a stranger, in order for the designated recipient to receive a kidney from another stranger.
This international chain was made possible through the American organization Alliance for Paired Donation (APD), which set up the exchanges, and the efforts of Papaioannou-Helmis, who campaigned to change Greek transplant laws in order to help find her husband Michelis a kidney.
Changing Greek law
Previously, Greek law—similar to laws in other European countries and South America—stated that only a first or second degree relative could legally donate a kidney to a recipient in the country. The law was put into place to limit black market organ harvesting and selling.
However, it also restricted the process of paired donation, which essentially requires strangers to ‘swap’ kidneys.
After the law was lifted in Greece, as well as in other countries such as the U.K., Italy and Spain, Helmis and her husband became the first international members entered into the APD’s recipient and donor pool, and thus were able to open up their search—which eventually ended across the world with 31-year-old Gay.