Connecticut man among growing number at Yale New Haven Hospital who donate kidneys without intended recipient
HARTFORD — Two years ago, one of Jonathan Winer’s closest friends died at age 35, six months after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
Winer named his 11-month-old son after Patrick Oroszko, a teammate on Winer’s Clark University basketball team. Oroszko had led a healthy life, which made his death especially difficult, said Winer, 37.
Winer, who donated his kidney Nov. 28 at Yale New Haven Hospital, was inspired by the death of his friend, and Middletown Mayor Dan Drew’s kidney donation to a city woman in August 2016. Drew was an altruistic donor as well, but had found a match in Olivia DiMauro.
Winer is part of a growing number of people who take part in kidney swaps.
A year and a half ago, Winer, athletic director of the Capitol Region Education Council in Hartford and a former Middletown resident, heard a Ted Talk podcast on kidney donations.
“An altruistic donor like Jonathan (those without an intended recipient) can start a chain where he can match someone who had a donor that was incompatible,” said Joyce Albert, Yale’s clinical transplant coordinator.
“So by starting that chain, the person that got Jonathan’s kidney, that person’s donor donated to someone else, and the other person that got the kidney, that donor donated to someone else,” she said.
“Now we have one donor that hasn’t donated yet that will be donating, to close the loop, some time this month or next month,” Albert said.
“Pat’s passing was an inspiration to me,” said Winer, who now lives in West Hartford.
“While it was a very sad event, I’m extremely lucky to have my health — and that can change at any time — but I could easily be on the other side of it, needing a kidney,” said Winer, who started the sports program at CREC when he was hired five years ago. “If this is not going to impact my life negatively, then why not do it?”
His wife Julia, director of public policy and strategic planning at CREC, was very supportive.
In 2017, Yale New Haven performed kidney surgery on 66 living donors. In fact, last spring, surgeons performed a successful 18-person kidney swap. In total, there were 119 kidney transplants that year. About five of them were swaps, Albert said.
Winer, who graduated from Daniel Hand High School in Madison after attending Xavier High School in Middletown for the first two years, said he hopes his story will bring needed attention to the 1,500 people in Connecticut awaiting a kidney donation.
“My experience was amazing,” Winer said.
“My surgery was Tuesday morning and I was walking later that day. I was discharged on Thursday morning and returned to work the following week. Less than two weeks after surgery, I was working full days with the only restriction being that I couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds for six weeks,” said Winer, whose wife is five months pregnant with a daughter.
“I didn’t know this at the time, but it was Giving Tuesday,” Winer said.
More than 123,000 people in the United States are waiting for an organ transplant. In 2016, more than 5,900 kidney and liver transplants were made possible by living donors, according to Yale.
“We have a very high success rate — knock on wood,” Albert said.
Winer’s surgery, performed by Dr. Sanjay Kulkarni, took two hours. “They told me within 20 minutes, it was functioning and producing urine. That is just amazing to me,” he said.
“By 11 o’clock, I was awake, completely coherent, my incision was sore, but they brought me up to my room, and, by 4:30 in the afternoon, they had me walking around,” Winer said. “I was working from my room, responding to emails. They kept me the next day and I was discharged Thursday morning.
“It was really incredible,” he said. “After the first day, I was 90 percent on Tylenol. They will give you Tramadol, but it really wasn’t that painful because you still have (peripheral) nerve blockers,” said Winer, who keeps in contact with Albert on a regular basis.
“We are mandated to do it for two years,” she said. “After that, we’re happy to follow them here or through their primary care doctor. If they work, or are far away, it’s not always convenient so we’ll get the results, look at it, and make recommendations.”
“The importance of an altruistic donor like me is I don’t have a (specific) recipient that needs to get a kidney,” Winer said. “By me putting my kidney out there, it makes it 100 times easier for these swaps to get going.”
The first exchange at Yale took place four years ago. People can participate in a swap whether they have a match or not, Albert said. “If you have a match, you can take part as long as it’s a benefit to your recipient,” she said.
And they can donate into their 70s, Albert said. “If you’re a healthy 71-, 72-year-old person with no medical problems, your weight is down, you don’t have high blood pressure, diabetes — we’ve had several of them and they’ve been amazing donors, and their recipients are doing amazingly well,” she said.
If his children ever needed a kidney transplant, he said, there is no guarantee he or his wife would be a compatible match. Some people decide not to donate a kidney for that reason, Winer said.
“My theory is, if you have that mindset, then nobody is ever going to donate unless it’s somebody close to them. I’m lucky kidney disease doesn’t run in my family. I’m extremely healthy right now and my hope is my children are extremely healthy,” he said.
“Is there chance one of them could need a kidney down the road? Sure, but is that small likelihood enough to keep me from donating to someone who actually needs one right now? For me it’s not,” Winer said. “If it comes to a point where my son or daughter needs one, we’ll work on that.”
“To me, if we all held on to those small odds, those likelihoods of things happening, then everybody would look out for their own kinship,” Winer said.
For information on how to help raise organ donation awareness, contact the Yale New Haven Transplantation Center at 203-785-2565 or Donate Life Connecticut at 203-387-1549. People can also designate themselves as an organ donor through the state Department of Motor Vehicles.