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The Gift Of Life

On Monday, NBA champion San Antonio Spurs forward Sean Elliott received a special gift from his brother that may save his life - a kidney.

Elliott, 32, underwent transplant surgery, receiving one of his brother Noel's kidneys in a six-hour operation. Elliott was suffering from a potentially fatal kidney disease called focal segmental glomerular sclerosis, and needs a new organ to survive without dialysis treatment.

The disease slows the kidneys, preventing them from properly filtering waste from the blood, but it is not known what causes it.

Kidney transplants are performed on patients who have chronic kidney disease that greatly diminishes their quality of life and threatens their survival. Candidates for the risky procedure must have strong hearts and lungs, and cannot have other medical problems that would put them in danger during surgery or greatly limit their chances for recovery.

Kidneys can come from either living donors or cadaver donors. If a patient has no related kidney donors, he or she will be placed on a waiting list to receive a cadaver donation.

Kidney transplants are often considered "elective surgery" because many patients can stay on dialysis for the rest of their lives.

The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) is the organization that compiles the national waiting list for those who need transplants. Patients must be evaluated at a hospital that is registered with UNOS to get on the waiting list. While each hospital has its own criteria for listing patients, UNOS has created guidelines for some organ types.

Once recommended for a transplant, kidney patients are registered in national and regional data banks that list vital information to help seek an organ match according to blood type, tissue and length of time on the UNOS waiting list.

When an organ match is found, the transplant surgery is begun as soon as possible. The procedure takes about three hours, and the new kidney usually begins working immediately.

Following surgery, the patient generally must begin taking immunosupressive medication to prevent the body from rejecting the transplant. Even after recovery, the patient must take the drugs every day for the rest of their lives, so that their own immune systems will not attack the kidney.

Currently, organs are offered by hospitals to patients living in the immediate area first. If no matches are found, they are offered regionally, then nationally, until the best candidate is found. But with this system, a relatively healthy patient who is located near the organ donor may get offered an organ first before a sicker person who lives further away.

Last week, the Clinton administration asked Congress to allow a new policy on organ donations that would serve the neediest patients first.

Last year, there were nearly 21,000 transplants performed, but more than 4,800 people died waiting for a new organ.

NOS, a private, nonprofit organization, is under contract with the Health Resources and Services Administration, and with the U.S. government.