Jonathan Winer of West Hartford is an altruistic kidney donor, and his donation last fall set off a chain that permitted five patients to receive new kidneys.
By Ronni Newton
Jonathan Winer is sharing his story, and is hoping to inspire others to follow his lead.
On Nov. 28, 2017, Winer donated one of his kidneys, an altruistic donation that ultimately allowed five people who were on dialysis to receive a healthy new kidney and new lease on life.
“People think it’s a risky thing to do, and that you have ramifications for the rest of your life, but that’s not true,” said Winer, a 37-year-old West Hartford resident.
Winer said that about two years ago he was listing to a TED Talk about altruism and altruistic kidney donors, and was inspired to find out more. He didn’t know anyone who had ever donated a kidney, and neither did he know anyone who was on dialysis and in need of a transplant; it was just something he decided he really wanted to do.
“I asked my physician, but he had no information about it,” Winer said.
The practice was relatively new, and Winer said he started doing online research and learned that Middletown Mayor Dan Drew had been an altruistic donor. Winer, who formerly lived in Middletown, reached out to Drew and asked about the experience.
“He said it was 100 percent positive,” Winer said. “He said if he could do it again he would, and that other than the usual post-surgery restrictions it was really positive.”
Drew also advised Winer that if he planned to pursue kidney donation, to do it through Yale New Haven Health.
Yale has extensive experience doing transplants, and Winer said that his surgeon had done 800 of them. They also provide post-surgical follow-up for two years, Winer said, one of the few hospitals that provides that type of service to donors. He said that the surgeon and transplants specialists give out their cellphone numbers, and are available to respond to any questions or concerns.
Before Winer could donate, however, he had to go through extensive batteries of tests and consultations. He met with a social worker and a psychologist and attended a 45-minute information session with a handful of other potential donors where all were encouraged to ask questions.
Questions were raised about the risks involved with the surgery itself, which Winer said are extremely small.
The procedure is typically done laparoscopically through a keyhole surgery technique – several small incisions through which instruments are inserted, and one larger incision in the pelvic area through which the actual kidney is extracted. A nerve block minimizes the amount of general anesthesia needed.
Other questions centered around the long-term risks of having only one kidney, including what could happen if that kidney fails.
“If you’re healthy enough to be approved, then post-surgery the chance of developing end-stage renal disease is about 1 in 300,” Winer said, which is pretty close to what the average is for anyone else in the population.
If an altruistic donor does require a transplant, having been a donor puts them at the top of the list to receive a new kidney, he said.
Winer said that all of his tests came back positive, but a minor concern about his family health history required him to go back to Yale for an additional screening. “Your health is a top priority,” he said.
According to Winer, 65 percent of those who apply are not approved. Overall health and family history are considered, as is any past experience with having surgery or anesthesia.
By the end of September 2017, he had been approved as a donor.
Winer’s altruistic donation permitted Yale to conduct a kidney swap, a practice the hospital began four years ago. Overall there were five kidney recipients that were part of the swap enabled by his donation.
Swaps are managed through an algorithm that matches donors and recipients. Winer said as an example someone may want to donate to a family member, but isn’t compatible. That person still donates and their kidney goes to someone else on the transplant list, and then someone else’s kidney goes to the donor’s family member.
“Non-directed donation is really important to this process. It enables the swaps to take place and starts a chain,” Winer said. The hospital tries to get as many people as possible involved in the chain.
Although multiple people are involved, the process is completely anonymous. Winer said that Yale is so protective of privacy that he and the recipient were directed to arrive at the hospital through separate entrances. They were in operating rooms right next door, but never saw each other.
The only detail Winer knows is that his kidney went to a woman, and he was told that the transplant went well. “They said within 20 minutes she was producing urine,” which is a very positive sign, Winer said.
Once the chain is completed and all of the kidneys in the swap have been donated, there is the possibility that he and the recipient could meet, but he doesn’t know if that will happen. From his perspective, it’s not necessary.
“I didn’t do it for a thank you or a pat on the back,” Winer said. “It’s satisfying just to know I did it.”
The recovery from surgery was quick and uneventful. He was told he would be 80 percent back to normal in two weeks, and at 100 percent in three weeks.
Winer said his kidney was removed at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, 2017, and he was out of surgery and coherent by 10:30 or 11 a.m.
“By 4 p.m. I was up and walking,” he said. The next day all he needed for pain relief was Tylenol.
The surgery was on a Tuesday, and he was discharged Thursday morning. On Monday he went back to work for partial days.
“Actually the day after I was discharged I had to pick something up and went to the office for an hour,” he confessed.
Less than two weeks after donation, Winer was back to work full-time. His only restriction was not being able to lift anything over 10 pounds for six weeks.
The surgery and other medical costs were completely covered by the recipient’s insurance. “I never got any bills,” Winer said.
Winer works as the athletic director for CREC Magnet Schools, and was able to use his sick time to recover. Donors who stand to lose income can apply to Yale for support, which he said the hospital finances through fundraisers.
Winer’s donation was, if not life-saving, most certainly life-changing in allowing someone to live without being on dialysis. “It’s really amazing what you can do,” he said.
In his job Winer manages the athletic programs for four high schools and five middle schools in the Greater Hartford area. He started the athletic program from scratch when he took the job four and a half years ago.
“One of the biggest things in our athletic program is teaching individuals to be constructive and contributing members of society,” Winer said. “Community service is key,” he said.
He’s encouraging middle and high school students to get involved in community service now, so that it will become a lifelong habit. Through his altruistic kidney donation, Winer said he is setting an example and not just talking about the importance of helping others.
Winer is married and has a 1-year-old son, and another baby due in May.
“I would never have put myself in this if my wife or I thought I was taking an unnecessary risk,” Winer said.
He said he’s now on a mission to educate as many people as possible about altruistic donation, with hopes that in the future it will become more common.
“It’s a bigger commitment than donating blood, but the same concept,” he said.
For more information about becoming a living kidney donor, call Yale New Haven Health at 1-866-YALETXP.
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