Many would-be kidney donors are ineligible because of their weight or smoking habits. A UChicago project helps them qualify

Last year, more than 70 kidney transplants were performed every day in the United States. Among those who wanted to be donors was Rachel Watson, a 27-year-old digital marketer living in Warrenville. At first, Watson was told she didn’t qualify due to her weight and BMI.

However, in January, she tried again at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where she learned about Project Donor, a program helping potential kidney and liver donors who are turned away due to weight or smoking history.

Project Donor, run out of the University of Chicago’s Center for RISC, aims to lower the 90% of individuals interested in kidney donation who don’t make it through the process. Most donation centers require donors to have a BMI lower than 35 and not to have smoked for at least 90 days before surgery.

The project provides free access to various weight loss programs and smoking cessation products, as well as financial assistance for transportation and lost wages during recovery.

About 170 prospective patients are currently working with Project Donor, with 25 participants having met their donation goals so far. The program is working to alleviate the long wait times and high demand for kidney donors, with over 106,000 people currently on the waitlist for a new organ.

Despite some controversy surrounding the use of BMI to determine eligibility for donation, Project Donor has successfully helped donors like Watson lose weight while navigating the pre-surgery process. In June, Watson was able to donate her kidney and returned to work just four weeks later.

While her personal experience with Project Donor was positive, Watson raises concerns about medical bills associated with organ donation, something she hadn’t considered before. On average, Project Donor spends $400 per participant, while a new kidney is estimated to be worth between $1.1 million and $1.5 million in future earning potential and quality of life.

Overall, Watson’s successful donation and positive experience with Project Donor highlight the program’s potential to make a lasting impact on the organ donation process.

Historically, organ donation has long been plagued by long wait times and high demand for donors. The establishment of programs like Project Donor marks a step forward in addressing these challenges and providing support to individuals who wish to make a difference through organ donation. As more individuals like Watson are able to navigate the donation process with assistance from such programs, the hope is that more lives can be saved through organ donation.

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