By this time next month, Hannah Pilla may have one fewer kidney. And she can’t wait.
The recent graduate of Roosevelt University has been cleared for organ donation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, bringing her one step closer to a personal goal: Giving away one of her kidneys to a stranger.
The 21-year-old’s interest in nondirected living donation — the medical term for giving organs to a purposely unknown recipient — began after she read about it in her seventh-grade social studies class. When a close friend lost a kidney in high school, Pilla found herself making a lighthearted promise.
“I always joked with her and said if she lost a kidney, I would lose mine, too,” Pilla recalled.
She then set a more concrete goal: to commemorate her entrance into the adult world with the philanthropic surgery. Her donor approval came Nov. 13, less than a month after she cold-called the hospital about the procedure and a few weeks before she graduated from Roosevelt.
Pilla is one of a growing number of altruistic donors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, according to the director of its living donor kidney program. Dr. Joseph Leventhal said he has seen an “explosion” in interest in altruistic donation, which was almost unheard of as recently as a decade ago.
Leventhal attributed the rising awareness to social networks that allow heart-touching tales of life-saving donations to reach more people than ever. Pilla said she was encouraged in part by inspirational accounts on YouTube.
In 2011, 165 out of nearly 6,000 living donors, or 3 percent, were “unrelated anonymous” givers, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Leventhal said his hospital receives five to 10 inquiries about altruistic donation per year and has been involved in three this year.
“They’re more common than you would think,” said Nancy Lepain, a nurse practitioner with the foundation’s Illinois branch. “There are good people out there.”
Altruistic donorism can raise serious questions about medical ethics. Hospitals worry about eager individuals rushing into the application process without fully understanding the risks, which can include surgical dangers such as excessive bleeding and infection, as well as kidney disease down the line.
The chance of dying during donor surgery is less than 0.04 percent, or 1 in every 2,500 operations, according to Leventhal’s data. He tells patients that there is a 0.1 percent to 0.5 percent chance they will later experience kidney disease.
Leventhal said he stresses to all patients they are making an informed, voluntary choice to put themselves “in harm’s way to help another person.”
“(My doctor) said, ‘I’m not telling you not to do it, but you need to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into,’” Pilla recalled.
At Northwestern Memorial Hospital, all living donors are assigned an “independent donor advocate” who has no contact with the recipient and helps the living donors navigate a sometimes overwhelming process. Pilla recalled a battery of pre-clearance assessments: blood testing, a urine sample, X-rays, a psychological evaluation and an application that asked about her family’s medical history.
Leventhal said his program pays close attention to an altruistic donor’s motivations, making sure that their interest is not “transactional,” or rooted in a desire to make money.
“If we sense there is something going on … we reserve the right to deny any individual going forward,” Leventhal said, noting that donors can call off the process at any point.
At the end of the day, altruistic donors are just generous people by nature, Leventhal said. He added that applicants for altruistic donation at his hospital are often denied for medical reasons, not because they have psychological problems or an ulterior motive.
“These are people who in their life have always been characterized as giving individuals,” Leventhal said. “They feel like they want to make a difference.”
Pilla said she has digested all the information the hospital provided her and is excited to finally make that difference. Pilla, who is now working part-time while applying for graduate school in psychology, can no longer recall the specific literature that inspired her in middle school.
“But it just kind of stuck with me since then,” she said. “I remember thinking that was so cool, and I could do it someday.”