The 2006 Three-Way Cross Country Kidney Swap That Almost Didn’t Happen

In 2007, Tomomi Barron wanted to donate a kidney to her husband, Patrick. The problem was, she wasn’t a match. Patrick suffered from kidney failure due to a genetic disorder (Polycystic Kidney Disease). They traveled to various hospitals to get on a shorter waiting list and even thought about traveling to China, where foreigners could get transplants quickly. Then, luckily there was a match for a paired exchange here in the Bay Area.  

Patrick & Tomomi

Next the Barron’s got a call from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, which they had visited. Tomomi’s kidney was a rare match for one of Dr. Montgomery’s patients. She could not find another match, and things weren’t looking good. A native of Japan, Tomomi was impressed by the culture of volunteering in her new country, and she was determined to go the extra step and donate her kidney to the woman who seemed almost impossible to match.

Johns Hopkins physician Robert Montgomery, MD, a pioneer in kidney paired donation, initially suggested a three-way cross-country swap among donors, inserting his hard-to-match patient, a Maryland resident, into the mix. Patrick was not comfortable with Tomomi, who was non-native to the US, having to travel alone for a surgery and simply wanted to go with a local donor swap. Dr. Montgomery, disappointed initially, came back with a bolder and more elegant proposal, to fly donor kidneys to their recipients, allowing donors to stay with their families. Instead of Tomomi physically traveling alone to Johns Hopkins, Dr. Montgomery achieved a cross-country transplant, where both donor and recipients would stay in their home cities, while the kidneys did the flying. Tomomi’s kidney flew in a refrigerated pack to his hospital and was transplanted it to the recipient.

Tomomi’s determination to help both patients, combined with Dr. Montgomery’s creativity helped pioneer cross-country, multiple paired kidney transplants. It was not only a gift to all the three patients in this exchange but to future kidney donors and recipients as well. Patrick’s and the other kidney recipients’ transplants were pioneering efforts to search the U.S and utilize different hospital systems working together to ensure the best patient outcomes.