Complex Kidney Exchange Offers Hope

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CBS

Two years ago, the simple pleasure of walking their dog Ellie around their Maryland neighborhood became a distressing chore for Bob and Lisa Brinkman.

"I became very tired, I mean I'm normally a high-energy person with two speeds, fast and faster," said Bob Brinkman. "And I was operating on slow to slower."

Fifty-eight-year-old Bob Brinkman's kidneys had begun to fail and he started dialysis 12 hours a week. Lisa, his fiancé at the time, offered him one of hers, but she wasn't a match. Then, a surprise rescue - the chance to be a part of the biggest multi-city, multi-patient domino kidney exchange ever.

An altruistic donor offered his kidney to anyone in need, kicking off a chain of 16 surgeries. Eight people gave their kidneys to strangers, so their friend or loved one could get one, reports CBS News correspondent Priya David.

"It's truly a miracle," said Lisa Brinkman, whose kidney is now in Detroit.

It's the sort of operation that only seems possible in fiction. In fact, the procedure was recently a story line in the popular medical drama "Grey's Anatomy."

"We beat grey's anatomy," said Dr. Robert Montgomery. "By two transplants!"

Montgomery, the chief transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, oversaw the eight transplants, which took place over two and a half weeks, in four hospitals in four different states.

"It's a logistical nightmare," Montgomery said. "I mean, it is difficult."

The domino transplant took months of planning, with more than 150 people working in concert to pull it all off.

But Montgomery argues such swaps should be routine, as 84,000 people in the U.S. need kidneys and only 6,000 are donated every year. He says creating a national database of willing kidney donors is vital.

"Right now there are probably about 150 kidney paired donations, including domino paired donations, that are done in the United States," Montgomery said. "That's 10 percent of the potential."

And that's the potential to change lives.

"I woke up and after a minute or two, realized that I felt normal, and I had hadn't felt that normal in years," said Bob Brinkman. "I was just - it was amazing."

This week, Bob and Lisa will celebrate their one year wedding anniversary with the glow of a renewed future.