NEW ORLEANS -- A medical computer program brought six strangers together from all walks of life. It was all in an effort to save the lives of loved ones with kidney failure.
It was the day they had been waiting for, complete strangers getting the opportunity to meet the people who saved their lives.
"If one of them backs out at the last minute, this whole thing could fall apart," said Dr. Anil Paramesh, a Tulane transplant surgeon.
Weeks before the gathering, on June 26, Tulane transplant surgeons had six operating rooms in full service with three different patients each needing a kidney transplant to live. They each had a living donor, a loved one, willing to give a kidney.
The problem was the husbands and daughter who stepped up to donate didn't match their family members. But when the Tulane transplant team put the three donors' genetic information in the computer, a cross match became clear that six strangers could be part of the pair exchange program.
"We try to keep them separated in the hospital so that they can't get to meet each other accidentally. That's always a challenge," said Dr. Paramesh, because of patient confidentiality.
But now it was time for the big reveal. Dr. John Hunt, the LSUHSC trauma surgeon who could not give to his wife Gaynell, matched Gina MacLaren, a mother of three. Gina's husband James MacLaren, a Tulane dean who did not match his wife, gave to an engineer Johnie Hughes. And Johnie's daughter Brinklyn Hughes, a State Department employee in Washington D.C., who did not match her father, gave to Gaynell Hunt.
"I felt really emotional, really emotional. I just know what my dad's been through over the years. He's had countless surgeries. It's been difficult, so to save and spare someone else from going through that year after year after year, it's so gratifying," said Brinklyn Hughes, one of the donors.
Her little girl was proud and thankful.
I've just been praying about my grandfather all this time, a lot. So everything goes OK because it's really tough for him to go through," said Autumn Alexander, 7, Brinklyn's daughter.
The surgeon, who became the patient to save his wife, had no questions or second thoughts.
"There was no decision," said Dr. John Hunt, an LSUHSC trauma surgeon and donor.
As the entire room filled with the surgical team watched the moment of discovery and emotion, there were jokes and laughter about men giving to women, competition among all the rival schools they were affiliated with, Tulane, LSU, Xavier and UNO. And there were jokes about what could have been.
"I could have harassed her something rotten had she gotten my kidney. I would have never had to lift a finger around the house again," said James MacLaren, who was one of the donors.
But this was life saving. No more dialysis. A new kidney for each that could last for 14 years. Gaynell and Gina have autoimmune illnesses. Johnie has high blood pressure and diabetes that he did not know about early enough to save his kidneys and health. He also did not know what his daughter had planned.
"'I'm giving you a kidney,'" Johnie remembers his daughter saying. "I said, 'I didn't want you to do that.' She said, 'That's what I wanted to do.'"
And after all the psychological counseling to make sure everyone was ready to accept the gift of life from a stranger, the doctor had one bit of advice.
"Live their life to the fullest. That's all I can tell them," said Dr. Paramesh.
A kidney donation from a living donor can last up to 14 years. That's twice as long as one from a person who just passed away. Eventually, recipients need another kidney.
Doctors think even though patients are on medication to suppress the immune system, it still reacts to a foreign organ in the body. The donors go on to live a normal life span with only one kidney.