When Jerry Boucher first revealed his plans to donate a kidney to a total stranger, his decision was met with skepticism.
At 55 years old, Boucher was still healthy and active. He had never undergone surgery before or even gotten stitches.
So why, his family and friends wondered, would he want to put himself through something as arduous and risky as getting a kidney removed for someone he did not even know?
“The interesting part for me is most of my family and friends after the fact act like they supported me all along,” Boucher, now a month removed from surgery, mused. “They’re all very proud of me and very happy…that I did what they consider to be an unselfish act.”
The Falls Church resident says that he does not blame anyone for their initial reaction, though, acknowledging that his family and friends were simply looking out for him.
They also did not receive the same amount of information that he was able to get from extensive discussions and consultations with medical professionals at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, where he ultimately underwent the procedure.
“All I could say was I had received assurances from the surgeons and medical staff…about how simple it would be for me and how unchanged my life would be, and I believed them,” Boucher said.
Boucher’s instinct and the trust that he placed in the MedStar staff turned out to be well-founded, as he says that he has experienced no lingering impacts from the surgery.
Now, the longtime Fairfax County resident wants to share his story in order to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation, a message with particular resonance in April, which has been designated National Donate Life Month by the nonprofit Donate Life America since 2003.
Boucher has long indicated on his driver’s license that he would permit his organs to be donated if he died in an accident, but the idea of being a living donor did not occur to him until the daughter of a friend approached him in 2015.
His friend’s daughter, who he identified by first name as Phyllis, had a severe kidney disease stemming from diabetes and asked if he would consider donating a kidney to potentially save her life.
“My answer was, if you’re brave enough to ask me, I’m brave enough to say yes, at the time having absolutely no idea what that meant,” Boucher said.
When Boucher visited MedStar to begin the donation process, he first had to fill out a questionnaire designed to determine whether someone might actually be eligible to donate. For example, anyone with a condition like diabetes that is closely linked to kidney disease would be quickly ruled out as a potential donor.
If they pass that initial questionnaire, candidates must then undergo a full day of evaluations, including blood tests and radiology exams, as doctors try to determine the likelihood that they might develop a kidney disease in the future.
This thorough screening process is geared toward ensuring that donor and recipient are compatible and will face minimal risks from the surgery.
According to Dr. Jennifer Verbesey, the director of Medstar Georgetown Transplant Institute, the main concern that donors face is developing blood clots in their legs.
However, all surgeries carry that risk, and it is such a rare complication for kidney transplants that Verbesey says she has never seen it.
“[Donors] can live long, normal, healthy lives,” Verbesey said. “They have a very rare incidence of any increased kidney disease, and part of that is because we screen people very carefully.”
In Boucher’s case, he was ultimately approved as a donor, a process that took more than a year since he intended to donate to a specific person, but he then learned that Phyllis also needed a pancreas, which can only be taken from a dead donor.
Phyllis ultimately received a pancreas and kidney simultaneously and is now free of both diabetes and her kidney disease, according to Boucher.
However, instead of taking himself out of the organ donation process as many people do if they are not compatible with their intended recipient, Boucher decided to donate anyway.
He became a non-directed donor, meaning that he had no specific recipient in mind, and entered into the National Kidney Registry, an exchange program that matches donors and recipients across the country.
Boucher was ultimately paired with a woman in Chicago, Ill., and underwent surgery on Mar. 7.
Kidney removal surgery is conducted laparoscopically, meaning that it is minimally invasive, and usually takes three to four hours, Verbesey says.
Boucher describes the procedure as easy and virtually pain-free.
“I’ve had no pain, no discomfort, and no change of physical abilities or body functions,” the Falls Church resident said. “My life hasn’t changed a bit, except I have the rewarding knowledge that I helped someone.”
Though privacy rules prevent Boucher from contacting the recipient of his donation unless she first reaches out to him, he has heard through surgeons that she is now healthy and living a normal life.
Boucher says that he hopes his story will inspire other people to take the same step of becoming a living kidney donor.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a nonprofit that manages the U.S.’s organ transplant system, a new person is added to the national transplant waiting list every 10 minutes, and an average of 22 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.
As of Apr. 17, there have been 4,723 kidney transplants in the U.S. in 2017, but there are still about 97,800 candidates on the waiting list for a kidney.
This need for donors extends beyond kidney transplants. There were 8,365 transplants performed with 3,947 donors from January through March 2017, but the waiting list still contains 118,147 people.
Verbesey says living donors are especially vital, because their organs are more durable and generally work immediately once transferred.
However, the number of people needing a transplant continues to rise, thanks to a population with longer life spans than ever. Improved medical technology and techniques have also enabled more people to survive with kidney diseases, meaning that more people are now eligible to receive a transplant.
“The number of donors has stayed relatively stagnant over time,” Verbesey said. “Because of that, there’s an increasing gap between the number of people who need kidneys and the number of people who are donating.”
Verbesey says that roughly 35 to 40 percent of MedStar’s transplants came from living donors last year, but the program would ideally like to see that number get closer to 50 percent.
She hopes that people will at least consider getting themselves tested to see if they might be eligible to become a living organ donor, since simply going through the screening process does not mean someone is committed to being a donor.
Boucher, who has lived in McLean and Falls Church for 35 years and now has two adult children, echoes the doctor’s sentiment.
“If you’ve ever thought about doing something that makes a difference, please look into the possibility of living organ donation,” Boucher said. “It is very simple, very easy, very convenient, and it changes lives.”