When Max Zapata of Clovis donated a kidney to a complete stranger a year ago, he had no idea his selfless act would set off a cross-country chain of organ donations.
On Friday's first anniversary of the organ donation, Zapata, 51, and the recipient of his kidney, Laura Amador, 28, of Stockton, counted at least 20 surgeries that originated from his altruism.
"And we don't know if it's ended," said Paul Amador, 25, who came to Clovis from Stockton with his sister to celebrate with Zapata on the anniversary.
Zapata's surgery last June 25 was one of the first at the UCSF-Medical Center in San Francisco.
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Kidney chains are a way to help patients streamline the long waiting process for a donation. A kidney donor and recipient must be biologically compatible. The average wait time is three to five years, and 85,000 patients are waiting for a donation, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
The chains are a variation on paired kidney donations.
In a paired donation, a patient has found someone willing to donate a kidney that is not a match. Another patient also has found such a donor. But if they swap donors, the kidneys will be compatible.
In a kidney chain, there can be many donors and recipients, but it all starts with a donor. The donor is matched with a patient who has found another donor with a kidney that is not compatible. The match allows the incompatible kidney to go to another patient. If that patient also has an incompatible donor, the chain can continue.
Kidney chains have become the new trend in the industry, because more people can get transplants, said Tom Mollo, executive director of the National Kidney Registry, a New York nonprofit computer-matching service for organ donations. The registry has facilitated 142 transplants since 2007, he said.
Here's how Zapata's chain grew: Zapata donated to Laura Amador. Her brother was not a match, but he donated to a stranger in Elk Grove. That man's wife donated to a stranger in New York. From there, Zapata said, surgeries were done in Philadelphia before the chain wrapped back to California.
Zapata had never heard of a donor chain when he decided to donate a kidney. A notice in his paycheck encouraging organ donation planted the seed. "God had been tugging my heart for a while to do something," he said.
There was an immediate connection between Laura Amador and Zapata, when they met after surgery. "You just know that it's instant friendship and it's everlasting," she said.
Since receiving her new kidney, she graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in psychology, and works part-time at a Boys and Girls Club.
She had spent three days a week on dialysis for four years. Wegener's granulomatosis, a rare autoimmune disease, caused her kidneys to fail.
Zapata's donation was the ultimate gift of life, Paul Amador said. "All the glory really goes to Max."
Zapata disagreed. "Everyone else who gave a kidney did their part to keep the chain going," he said.