To save her brother's life, a Kansas woman donates her kidney through a nearly-scarless surgery

[MUSIC PLAYING] I was diagnosed with a kidney condition called membranous GN back in 2017. They discovered this through some blood work, which led to a biopsy and the discovery of that disease. And I began treatment with my local nephrologist in Springfield, Missouri. But the condition progressed, and they wanted to start and get the ball really rolling on a kidney transplant. And the University of Chicago is one of the top hospitals that my nephrologist recommended.

The operation used to historically be a pretty big operation with a major cut on their side and occasionally taking out a piece of rib. This was refined-- with advances in laparoscopic surgery-- to be able to do this in a more minimally invasive approach. And this approach, this minimally invasive kidney donation approach, allowed patients to go home in a day or two and have much less pain.

We certainly didn't want to wait on the donor list. And while that may be an option for some, and a good option, just the amount of time that it takes from being listed on the donor list to potentially getting a kidney, the time frame was a little bit too long for my health needs. My sister, Caroline, stepped up and said that she would absolutely be honored to donate her kidney. So it went from a waiting period of five-plus years to about four or five months.

I started with blood work at my local hospital, and that was sent right to the University of Chicago. And once I was accepted as a good match for my brother, then I went to Chicago in December and did some more tests. It was about a day and a half of tests. I got to see the city. I got to visit a friend. And it was a really pretty easy process.

About a decade ago, our team refined and developed a technique for, really, the least invasive approach towards kidney donation-- we call it single-port donor nephrectomy-- and take advantage of, really, the first scar that any of us are born with, which is our belly button. We make a small incision, hiding it in the belly button, and put a special instrument through which we insert the camera and the instruments needed to do the operation.

We spend that time, for the next period of hour or two, separating the kidney from the patient, carefully and meticulously dissecting the blood vessels and the kidney, and, at the final step, divide those blood vessels and put the kidney into a special sterilized bag and stretch out the belly button just large enough to bring the kidney out for the recipient. At the end of the operation, we close up the belly button, and everyone ends up with an innie. And the incision is not much bigger than your original belly button.

We put a little piece of gauze and a Band-Aid over the incision. It's actually not a full Band-Aid. We cut the Band-Aid in half. And patients go to recovery and wake up and can look down at their tummy and see a half of Band-Aid over their belly button and know that they've not only saved someone's life by donating their kidney, being able to go home with minimal pain and back to full function.

I just remember feeling around to see where the incision was, and all it was, was a little bandage on my belly button, which kind of shocked me.

After the surgery, we were actually two rooms apart on the same floor. So after the next day, it was very easy for me to get up and walk and go visit her. And she came to my room a couple of times as well.

I got to go home within 24 hours. The recovery wasn't bad at all.

I feel good. It's a life-changing procedure. And it will change someone's life, even if you don't know 'em. It's easy. They're professional. They know what they're doing.

Giving life is such a huge thing. And maybe you don't know who is receiving the kidney, but it does something in your heart that is so impactful and motivating for yourself. So I hope for my brother that he gets to live a long and healthy life.

I feel a lot closer to my sister. We have always been close. We come from a very close-knit and involved family, but I feel even closer now. Of course, a part of her is inside me keeping me healthy. And so I'm so grateful, so thankful for her.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

In 2017, Robert Baldwin Jr., was diagnosed with membranous glomerulonephritis (MGN), a progressive disease of the kidneys which can cause them to stop functioning properly.

Baldwin was able to treat the condition for a few years with the help of his local nephrologist — or kidney disease specialist — in Springfield, Missouri, but the condition worsened. His nephrologist recommended the University of Chicago Medicine for a kidney transplant evaluation, his best chance for survival.

Finding a living kidney donor

The average wait time for a kidney from the national deceased donor waiting list in the U.S. is three to five years. When doctors told Baldwin he may not have that much time, his younger sister, Caroline Bivens, stepped in and offered to donate one of her kidneys.

Bivens, who lives in Topeka, Kansas, began the evaluation process with bloodwork at her local hospital. She then visited Chicago and was evaluated by the expert team of kidney transplant specialists at UChicago Medicine. Bivens was a match and reduced Baldwin's transplant wait time down to about five months.

Caroline Bivens and Robert Baldwin in the hospital post-kidney donor nephrectomy
Caroline and Robert in the hospital after their surgeries

Innovative kidney donor surgery leaves virtually no scar

In February, Baldwin and Bivens came back to UChicago Medicine's Hyde Park campus for their surgeries. For Bivens, doctors used a new, minimally invasive laparoscopic kidney donor surgery (also known as a single-port donor nephrectomy), which is only offered at a handful of hospitals nationwide. The procedure involves a single small incision in the donor’s belly button through which instruments are placed and the kidney is removed. Most patients wake up with a small bandage over the belly button and the scar hidden inside it.

A donor surgery with a quick recovery

The laparoscopic nephrectomy is as safe as the traditional approach that involves making multiple small incisions and a longer extraction incision to remove the kidney. The benefit, though, is that the new surgery requires less healing time for the organ donor and does not leave them with a visible reminder of their donation.

Both surgeries were a success, and Bivens was able to go home 24 hours after her donation.

[MUSIC PLAYING] About a decade ago, our team refined and developed a technique for really the least invasive approach towards kidney donation. We call it single-port donor nephrectomy, and take advantage of really the first scar that any of us are born with, which is our belly button. We make a small incision, hiding it in the belly button, and put a special instrument through which we insert the camera and the instruments needed to do the operation.

We spend that time for the next period of hour or two separating the kidney from the patient, carefully and meticulously dissecting the blood vessels and the kidney. And at the final step, divide those blood vessels and put the kidney into a special sterilized bag, and stretch out the belly button just large enough to bring the kidney out for the recipient.

At the end of the operation, we close up the belly button. Everyone ends up with an innie. And the incision is not much bigger than your original belly button. We put a little piece of gauze and a Band-Aid over the incision.

It's actually not a full Band-Aid. We cut the Band-Aid in half. And patients go to recovery and wake up and can look down at their tummy and see half a Band-Aid over their belly button, and know that they've not only saved someone's life by donating their kidney, being able to go home with minimal pain and back to full function, and doing these wonderful acts of kidney donation.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Rolf Barth

Rolf Barth, MD

Dr. Barth performed the first scarless single-port laparoscopic donor nephrectomies (kidney removal), and has gone on to successfully complete this procedure over 500 times.

See Dr. Barth's physician profile