NEW ORLEANS — In early August, two surgeons at the Ochsner Transplant Institute combined efforts to perform a milestone procedure—Louisiana’s first international paired kidney donation transplant surgery. The donor, a woman from Denmark, gave the gift of life to a Louisiana woman. Their stories cross an ocean, span two countries, and give hope to those awaiting an organ transplant.
Families in a health crisis
Michael Poulsen of Odense, Denmark was in urgent need of a kidney transplant, after chronic hypertension led to severely reduced kidney function. His wife, Marianne, was dismayed to learn she was not an organ donor match but wanted to help in any way she could. Michael was enrolled in a Scandinavian donor exchange program for more than two years without a match until he joined an international registry that paired him with a donor for his transplant surgery in Ohio. For him to receive the kidney transplant, Marianne would be required to join the international paired kidney exchange as a living donor. While she could not donate to her husband, it would be possible for her to help someone else in need. Marianne readily agreed. After Michael’s successful transplant in May 2022, Marianne learned a few months later that she was a perfect match for a woman from Louisiana. So, she and Michael began their journey to the Ochsner Transplant Institute in New Orleans.
At 19 years old, Loranger, Louisiana native Stephanie Morel was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts develop in the kidneys, causing them to enlarge and lose function over time.
“My father and all his siblings have the disease, and they have all received kidney transplants,” Stephanie shared. “I knew when I was diagnosed that I would eventually need a kidney transplant, too.”
Stephanie’s PKD began to escalate in late 2020 and she was officially listed on Ochsner’s kidney transplant list in February 2021. Because her sister was a willing live donor that was not a match to Stephanie, but still willing to donate in exchange for Stephanie to receive another living kidney donation, she was also listed in the paired kidney exchange program. She was thrilled when she got the call months later about a perfect match but was more than surprised that it was an international donor from Denmark.
Now that Stephanie has recovered from surgery, her health has dramatically improved. She can walk and not get short of breath and her legs and feet no longer swell. She has enough energy to take care of her family and return to her career of helping others because Marianne so selflessly helped her. Stephanie is a volunteer firefighter with the Loranger Volunteer Fire Department and is also secretary of the department, assisting her husband, Justin, who is the fire chief. The giving will continue—Stephanie’s sister, now part of the paired kidney chain, is next up to donate her kidney once a match is established.
When you aren’t a match
Many people, upon hearing that their loved one needs a kidney transplant, altruistically offer one of their own. But what happens when you aren’t a match? For many years, that meant patients in need of a kidney waited months, sometimes years, for an organ from a deceased donor, while their health continued to deteriorate. Sometimes, the wait was too long, and they died. In the 1990s, however, physician teams in the US and abroad began studying the possibility of a paired kidney donation.
Paired kidney donations, or an exchange, is an approach to a living kidney transplant where patients with incompatible donors swap kidneys to receive a compatible kidney. The first paired kidney donation in the US was in 2000 and Ochsner’s first such milestone surgery was more than a decade ago. Paired kidney donations can form “chains” with tens of people—the longest chain was 70 participants and was completed in 2014. Recently, these types of transplants are including international patients in need, who come to the US to both receive and donate kidneys, like the Poulsens.
“Living organ donation is an amazing way to help someone in need of a life-saving organ transplant,” said Dennis Sonnier, MD, transplant surgeon, Ochsner Health. “The best days of my surgical career are when I can help restore health to my patients and give them a second chance at a long life.”
Two families come together
Marianne, Stephanie, and their families had an emotional first meeting on August 22 at Ochsner Medical Center – New Orleans. The two women now consider themselves family—connected forever through living organ donation.
“It has always been my greatest wish to meet the woman I donated my kidney to,” said Marianne. “I was so happy when I learned she also wanted to meet me! It was an emotional experience that will forever be deep in my heart.”
Stephanie shared, “Marianne and her husband, Michael, were amazing. He and I bonded over similar experiences, and it was like we always knew each other. They even invited us to Denmark! I remember sitting beside Marianne thinking ‘this woman flew halfway around the world to give me her kidney.’ How amazing is that?”
Living donations are important
Today, 30% of Ochsner’s kidney transplant patients receive organs from living donors. There are more people on the waiting list than there are available kidneys from deceased organ donors. Most of us are born with two kidneys. When one of our kidneys is removed and transplanted into another person’s body, the human body adapts to life with just one kidney. Living organ donation can keep organ donation waiting lists shorter with better outcomes for the recipient. Surgeons transplant the kidney immediately after removing it from the donor, which improves the chances that the organ will function very quickly.
“You don’t realize how much of a blessing organ donation is until it affects you. A complete stranger gave me a new lease on life. My family has been touched by organ donation on multiple occasions. Without the selfless donation of both living and deceased organ donors, our lives and the lives of our families would not be the same,” Stephanie said.
Care at the Ochsner Transplant Institute
Since its inception in 1984, Ochsner’s team of renowned physicians, surgeons, transplant nurses and support specialists have successfully performed more than 8,000 lifesaving liver, kidney, pancreas, lung and heart transplants. This number includes surgeries performed through Ochsner’s living organ donor programs, including its living donor liver transplant program and living donor kidney transplant program. The Ochsner Transplant Institute has the only pediatric heart and pediatric living liver donor transplant programs in Louisiana. It is the most active and experienced transplant center in the Gulf South region.
In recent years, Ochsner has strengthened its position as an international leader by achieving the highest national benchmarks for quality. By recruiting some of the world’s leading transplant surgeons and physicians, pursuing clinical and research excellence and adding programs for even the rarest and most complex organ transplants, the Ochsner Transplant Institute continues to grow and serve more adult and pediatric patients needing organ transplants in New Orleans, the region and around the world. To date, Ochsner has cared for transplant patients from 37 states and 10 countries.
Both Marianne’s donor surgery and Stephanie’s transplant surgery were conducted simultaneously by Dennis Sonnier, MD and John Seal, MD, respectively. They are both abdominal transplant surgeons at the Ochsner Transplant Institute. Sean Roberts, MD is Stephanie’s longtime nephrologist based at Ochsner Health Center-Covington and recommended her for transplant.