Imagine being able to claim that something you did saved a human life.
Now, imagine that times four.
Such is the case for a Lyndhurst woman whose selfless generosity led to a “Good Samaritan” kidney donation through Hackensack University Medical Center’s partnership with National Kidney Registry (NKR), an organization that facilitates living donor kidney transplants.
Lyndhurst’s Gianna Graw, 24, saved four lives to become the first patient to make such a donation anywhere in the country.
Her generous donation kicked off a zig-zagging, bi-coastal chain of four kidney transplants in Los Angeles, Tampa, Los Angeles again and finally, San Francisco.
Graw says she sees her kidney donation as part of another type of chain: A legacy of kindness and compassion started by her father, William Graw, a Jersey City police officer, died Oct. 2, 2016.
“My dad dedicated his life to helping others, and I wanted to find a way to honor him and live his legacy,” Graw says.
Graw says she first heard about kidney donations shortly after her dad died, during a brief mention in one of her undergraduate classes at Stockton University, where she majored in psychology. She began researching to learn more about the kidney-donation process.
Last January, when she learned of a Jersey City police officer who needed a donor kidney, she says she felt called upon to do something to honor her father’s memory.
“I got in touch with the officer’s hospital, but it turned out that he already had a donor,” Graw says.
Despite this, after doing hours of research, Gianna says she still felt ready to donate. So, she reached out to Hackensack University Medical Center and started the kidney-donation process.
“I met with a social worker, a psychologist, a pharmacist and a nephrologist — and they did lots and lots of tests to make sure I was healthy enough to donate,” she says.
Partnering with the NKR
During this time, Graw says she learned Hackensack University Medical Center established a partnership with the National Kidney Registry.
NKR has the largest pool of living-kidney donors across 100 transplant centers in the United States, allowing for better transplant matches and outcomes. The NKR uses a sophisticated matching system to pair donors and recipients. After the hospital performs the donor-harvesting procedure, NKR picks up the donor organ and transports it to the recipient’s transplant facility.
“It can take years to get a deceased donor kidney, and having access to NKR’s donor network can help Hackensack University Medical Center’s patients to receive living donor kidneys sooner,” Joe Sinacore, director of education and development at the National Kidney Registry, says. “(About) 62% of NKR recipients receive matches within 45 days, and an additional 12% are matched within six months.”
Further, NKR’s diverse pool of living kidney donors can help recipients find a better match, which is demonstrated by the program’s higher graft survival rates when compared to other living donor transplants.
“Hackensack University Medical Center is proud to partner with NKR,” Mark D. Sparta, FACHE, president and chief hospital executive at Hackensack University Medical Center, says. “Not only does the NKR partnership give our patients enhanced access to living donor kidneys, but it also provides opportunities for New Jersey residents to donate kidneys to help others around the country.”
Dr. David Serur, the medical director of the Kidney Transplant Program at Hackensack University Medical Center, coordinates care for patients with end-stage kidney disease who need kidney transplants. As a result, he understands the importance of NKR — and “Good Samaritan” kidney donors such as Gianna.
“By connecting our recipients with matching kidneys from across the U.S. and facilitating good samaritan donations, NKR gives people with end-stage kidney disease a second chance,” Serur says. “Through advanced matching techniques and the creation of nationwide donor chains, individual donors like Gianna can have a positive impact on several lives.”
Removing Barriers for Donors
Although Graw says nothing would have changed her mind about donating a kidney, she was excited to be a part of NKR’s program because it offers a robust donor safety net.
For example, if she would need a kidney in the future, she could redeem a voucher that would prioritize her for a living donor kidney through NKR’s program. She also received up to five “Family Vouchers” that she gave to healthy family members — just in case one of them needs a kidney later in life.
Additionally, kidney donation through NKR includes donation life and disability insurance, lost-wage reimbursement, travel and lodging reimbursement, financial protection and legal support.
Graw says this safety net removes barriers for people who are considering kidney donation, but who might hesitate for a myriad of reasons.
These protections also helped her reassure friends and family members who were initially concerned about her decision to donate.
“It’s nice to know that I’m protected,” Graw says. “NKR took common donor concerns and addressed them to make it easier for people to donate.”
Saving lives during COVID-19
During the first wave of the pandemic, hospitals around the country temporarily closed their transplant centers to prepare for an influx of patients with COVID-19. However, during the second wave of COVID-19, Hackensack University Medical Center and other U.S. hospitals continue to perform life-saving kidney transplant surgeries.
Graw says she felt a “normal” amount of nerves before her donation procedure but was quickly put at ease by her pre-op nurses and surgical team.
“It was an incredible moment,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do it, and I also knew that someone was counting on me to save their life — as well as three other people in the chain who were also counting on me.”
Dr. Ravi Munver, vice chairman and chief of Minimally Invasive & Robotic Urologic Surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center’s Department of Urology, removed Gianna’s kidney using laparoscopic surgery, which required only a few small incisions. Munver is pioneering the use of an innovative imaging software called IRIS, which creates a 3-D, animated model of Graw’s kidney anatomy from CT scan images.
This state-of-the-art technology assisted in pre-op planning, and allowed him to precisely preserve delicate arteries and veins.
The surgery started at 3 o’clock in the morning as the kidney was scheduled for a flight to California, where it would be transplanted into a recipient. The collaborative effort from the members of the Division of Organ Transplantation was perfect, and the operating room team effort was incredible.
“Gianna’s surgery went very smoothly, and her gesture of kindness has given four people the gift of life,” Munver says. “We hope Gianna’s story, as well as our partnership with NKR, leads to many more Good Samaritan kidney donations.”
Recovering and Raising Awareness
Gianna was discharged from the hospital the very next day, after her kidney donation procedure. Other than a little post-surgical soreness, Gianna says she’s recovering well at home with no need for pain medication. She was even able to go out for a one-mile walk a few days after surgery.
After her recovery is complete, Gianna will resume her graduate studies in higher education at Montclair State. She also hopes to share her story and positive experience with others who are considering kidney donation.
“Raising awareness of kidney donation is important to me, and I hope others hear my story and say, ‘This is something I can do,’” she says. “But it’s really my dad who deserves all the credit because he inspired me with his kindness and compassion.”
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.