January 13, 2021
On December 9, 2020, Gianna Graw saved four lives and became the first patient to make 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.
Gianna’s generous donation kicked off a zig-zagging bi-coastal chain of four kidney transplants in Los Angeles, California; Tampa, Florida; Los Angeles again; and finally, San Francisco, California.
Gianna, 24, of Lyndhurst, New Jersey, said that she sees her kidney donation as part of another type of chain: A legacy of kindness and compassion started by her father, a Jersey City police officer who passed away in 2016.
“My dad dedicated his life to helping others, and I wanted to find a way to honor him and live his legacy,” said Gianna.
Gianna said she first heard about kidney donation shortly after her father passed away, during a brief mention in one of her undergraduate classes at Stockton University where she majored in psychology. Gianna began researching to learn more about the kidney donation process.
In January 2020, when she learned of a Jersey City police officer who needed a donor kidney, Gianna 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,” said Gianna.
Nonetheless, after doing hours of research, Gianna said 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,” said Gianna.
Partnering with NKR
During this time, Gianna learned that Hackensack University Medical Center established a partnership with NKR. NKR has the largest pool of living kidney donors across 100 transplant centers in the United States, allowing for better transplant matches and outcomes. 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,” said Joe Sinacore, Director of Education and Development, National Kidney Registry. “Sixty-two percent of NKR recipients receive matches within 45 days, and an additional 12 percent 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,” said Mark D. Sparta, FACHE, president and chief hospital executive, Hackensack University Medical Center. “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.”
David Serur, M.D., 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,” said Dr. Serur. “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 Gianna said that 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 Gianna 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.
Gianna said that this safety net removes barriers for people who are considering kidney donation. 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,” said Gianna. “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.
Gianna said 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,” said Gianna. “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.”
Ravi Munver, M.D., 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. Dr. Munver is pioneering the use of an innovative imaging software called IRIS™, which created a 3D animated model of Gianna’s kidney anatomy from CT scan images. This state of the art technology assisted in preoperative planning, and allowed him to precisely preserve the 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,” said Dr. Munver. “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 said she is 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 her 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,’” said Gianna. “But it’s really my dad who deserves all the credit because he inspired me with his kindness and compassion.”
About Hackensack Meridian Health Hackensack University Medical Center
Hackensack Meridian Health Hackensack University Medical Center, a 781-bed nonprofit teaching and research hospital located in Bergen County, NJ, is the largest provider of inpatient and outpatient services in the state. Founded in 1888 as the county’s first hospital, it is now part of the largest, most comprehensive and truly integrated health care network in New Jersey, offering a complete range of medical services, innovative research and life-enhancing care, which is comprised of 35,000 team members and more than 7,000 physicians. Hackensack University Medical Center is ranked #2 in New Jersey and #59 in the country in U.S. News & World Report’s 2019-20 Best Hospital rankings and is ranked high-performing in the U.S. in colon cancer surgery, lung cancer surgery, COPD, heart failure, heart bypass surgery, aortic valve surgery, abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, knee replacement and hip replacement. Out of 4,500 hospitals evaluated, Hackensack is one of only 57 that received a top rating in all nine procedures and conditions. Hackensack University Medical Center is one of only five major academic medical centers in the nation to receive Healthgrades America’s 50 Best Hospitals Award for five or more years in a row. Becker’s Hospital Review recognized Hackensack University Medical Center as one of the 100 Great Hospitals in America 2018. The medical center is one of the top 25 green hospitals in the country according to Practice Greenhealth, and received 26 Gold Seals of Approval™ by The Joint Commission – more than any other hospital in the country. It was the first hospital in New Jersey and second in the nation to become a Magnet® recognized hospital for nursing excellence; receiving its sixth consecutive designation in 2019. Hackensack University Medical Center has created an entire campus of award-winning care, including: John Theurer Cancer Center, a consortium member of the NCI-designated Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center; the Heart & Vascular Hospital; and the Sarkis and Siran Gabrellian Women’s and Children’s Pavilion, which houses the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital and Donna A. Sanzari Women’s Hospital, which was designed with The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center® and listed on the Green Guide’s list of Top 10 Green Hospitals in the U.S. Hackensack University Medical Center is the Hometown Hospital of the New York Giants and the New York Red Bulls and is Official Medical Services Provider to THE NORTHERN TRUST PGA Golf Tournament. It remains committed to its community through fundraising and community events especially the Tackle Kids Cancer Campaign providing much needed research at the Children’s Cancer Institute housed at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital. To learn more, visit www.HackensackUMC.org.