If you drive past Shari’s on state Route 169, you’ll see a billboard tucked into a bright hill of green vines, shrubs and trees that reads: “Searching for the gift of life… kidney donor needed.”
Binh Tran, the Renton resident featured in the billboard, is not alone. Yes, he has his wife, three children, and grandchildren in that sense, but he’s also in a large group of people who need this surgery. Kidney transplants are the most common transplant needed in the U.S. — 82 percent of transplant patients need a kidney, according to Donate Life America.
And once a patient is approved, they can be on a waitlist that takes anywhere from three to four years, to 10-plus years in some states, said Lena Sibulesky, transplant surgeon with UW Medicine in Seattle and assistant professor of surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Washington state tends to have a shorter wait time than other states like New York or California. Although it depends on numbers and blood types, blood type O patients can expect a deceased kidney donor in usually three to four years, and a less universal blood type, like type B, can be five years.
They can also find a living donor, someone healthy and compatible for donating one of their kidneys.
Sibulesky said living donors are better for the life of the recipient of the kidney, but also increase the donor pool, leaving more deceased donor kidneys to transplant to other patients.
“There’s definitely a benefit to getting a living donor kidney,” Sibulesky said. “It lasts longer, it works right away and (the recipient) doesn’t have to wait on dialysis. Once both parties are worked up they can undergo transplant when everybody’s ready.”
While deceased donor transplants average 10 to 15 years, she said living donor transplants can last 15 to 20 years. This is as long as something doesn’t interfere with the new kidney, like disease or skipping medications that prevent rejection.
The majority of living donor kidneys work right away, but a deceased donor kidney has a 30-40 percent chance of not working right away, which also prolongs stay in the hospital after surgery, or even need to continue dialysis, Sibulesky said.
Dialysis is a treatment that filters out waste from your body, usually the job of kidneys, according to United Network for Organ Sharing. But this process only completes about 15 percent of the kidney’s job. Some use it while waiting for a donor, and others can only do this to treat kidney disease.
Tran receives dialysis two to three times a week. He said kidney failure makes it hard to do much in his retirement but sleep. Dialysis patients have to conserve their energy, plan their days and weeks in accordance to when they receive treatment. When he has the energy he usually walks or cleans around the house after recovering from dialysis treatment.
Tran uses the dialysis machine on high in order to remove as much waste as possible. With Tran’s irregular heartbeat and low red blood cell levels, he said the dialysis machine’s speeding pump of blood in and out is hard on him.
“Sometimes I can’t handle that,” he said.
Tran was rejected at Swedish Medical Center and UW Medicine for a transplant due to his vascular disease, and a plaque build-up in his legs. A specialist at Virginia Mason granted him a one-year approval last November to find a live kidney donor.
“He has a limited time to be approved for a kidney donation, and that time is minimizing,” Tran’s daughter Jennie Hanson said. “He’s trying to get an extension, so as long as the specialist is at Virginia Mason… if they leave we might be in trouble.”
Hanson said she and her siblings lost their mother at a young age, and they want to keep Tran healthy and out of the hospital, where he frequently visits.
“My kidney failed three years ago, and I’m looking for a live donation for kidney and that will save my life,” Tran said. “I have to go to dialysis almost every other day, and if I have a kidney my life will be longer and I’ll spend more time with my family with my children and my grandchildren. I want to see my grandchildren grow up.”
“He came over the other day and helped them make slime! So, we’re working on him as a grandpa,” Tran’s other daughter, Nicole Henderson, said jokingly.
Sibulesky said living donors undergo screenings to check if they’re healthy and safe to continue before a procedure, which can then occur as soon as both parties are ready. In a live donor process, a donor comes into the operating room, and a few hours later the recipient enters their operating room. At this point, the operations happen simultaneously. The kidney is flushed and cooled, and then transported to the recipient’s room and implanted. Usually, the recipient and the donor are in the hospital for the same amount of time, coming in for a surgery on a Wednesday, and leaving Saturday or Sunday, she said as an example.
“The kidney gets bigger, or hypertrophies, in about six months or so and really doesn’t have an effect on the donor,” Sibulesky said. “They’ve studied people who donated a kidney, and those who didn’t, and because those who donate are screened to be very healthy, they actually do better than the rest of the population.”
Tran said he might go back to his job after a donation. Tran moved to Minnesota from Vietnam in 1975, teaching himself English and eventually graduating University of Minnesota in electrical engineering. He moved to Renton and worked at Boeing, then the Federal Aviation Association, as an electrical specialist inspecting aircraft to make them safe to fly. He suffered a heart attack in 2014, causing him to retire, and then a year later faced kidney failure.
“He keeps threatening to go back to work, and the FAA says they would hire him back, but his part-time job is dialysis, as well as enjoying football and other sports,” Hanson said.
“I enjoy my job. I’m satisfied with the work and it helps people fly safer,” Tran said.
“We really wanted to push Renton, we’re from here. And we’re looking for all kinds of help: sharing our posts and talking about our family’s situation,” Hanson said. “We’ve always been private people so this is weird for us, especially (Tran). Vietnamese culture isn’t about sharing your business with other people, but we’re in the position where we have to.”
“It’s very hard for me,” Tran agreed.
On Tran’s website is a link to Virginia Mason, where they walk potential donors through an over-the-phone screening process.