Tyler Weig got the idea to donate a kidney to a total stranger when a Facebook friend posted in 2011 that his uncle in Indiana needed a transplant.
"I started to think about it, and I thought I should work here locally with a local hospital," said Weig, 30, of Des Moines.
So in early 2012, Weig connected with Mercy Transplant Services and began the process of testing and education that culminated, almost a full year later, in kicking off a chain of kidney exchanges that made Iowa history.
From Jan. 7 through 9, 10 operations gave five people new kidneys - the longest kidney transplant chain to take place in Iowa.
Though Weig did not know anyone personally who was affected by kidney disease, he said he became connected to those with the disease during the process of living kidney donation.
"As you go through it, you realize how many people are touched by kidney disease that you never knew," Weig said.
On Wednesday, the five donors and five recipients in the chain reunited at Mercy Medical Center. Over cake and punch, they mingled, and some hugged, as they gave one another updates on their health in the weeks following the surgeries.
"Welcome to the kidney club!" Peter March said, as he lifted up his blazer, shirt and tie to reveal two still-red incision scars on his stomach. March donated a kidney so that his wife, Nerissa March, could receive one from another donor in the chain. "We got through it all, and it's party time," March said.
In a paired kidney exchange, recipients who are incompatible with a willing donor - a spouse, family member or friend - swap their donor with another patient's. The chain begins when an altruistic donor, who does not know a recipient, comes forward. In this case, it was Weig.
Since his surgery, Weig said he has not yet processed his contribution.
"I still haven't mentally caught up to the fact that I'm living with one kidney," Weig said, "and quite simply I haven't mentally grasped the fact that it's in someone else."
Weig's recipient was Lance Beyer, 42, of Pella. His wife, Julie Beyer, wanted to give Lance a kidney of hers, but the pair had incompatible blood types. So Julie donated her kidney to another person in need, and in exchange, Lance received Weig's kidney.
"It's tough to put into words," Lance Beyer said. "Anybody who donated a kidney to someone they don't know, it's miraculous."
Lance Beyer said he's been feeling "up and down, but pretty good so far," since his surgery.
Julie Beyer said she is still sore, but the sacrifice was worth it. "I still can't even fathom what all happened, but if I could help out my family in some way, I was going to do it," she said."And if I could help somebody else out at the same time, I guess that's a fringe benefit."
Living kidney donations are considered to have the best results, explained Dr. Cass Franklin, director of the transplant program at Mercy. An exchange makes it possible for people to get transplants without having to spend years on the organ waiting list.
"If we can produce a live donor, we can pretty much assure that there's going to be a good outcome, and longevity comes with that kind of transplant," Franklin said.
The first paired kidney exchange in the United States was performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., in 2001. The procedure began as a two-way exchange, and has grown to chains as large as 30 pairs stretching across 11 states. The Mercy surgeries were unusual for taking place all at the same hospital.
Nationwide, almost 95,000 people are on the kidney list. The waits can stretch years. In 2011, just 16,000 kidney transplants were performed, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
Currently, Iowa has 532 people waiting for kidneys, more than for any other organ.
"That's less than six per county," said Mike Dodge, one of the donors in the chain. Inspired by his part in the exchange, Dodge said his goal is to work to eliminate the Iowa waiting list.
"There's no reason that we can't go out there and tell this story enough," Dodge said, "that we can't convince six people per county to do this, in order to just wipe that list out."
Written by: Sharyn Jackson, Des Moines Register