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Web-Kidney Transplant Underway

A man underwent a kidney transplant Wednesday in what is believed to be the first such operation involving an organ obtained through a for-profit Web site -- a transaction that has raised legal and ethical questions.

Hospital spokeswoman Stephanie Lewis said the surgery was going well and the vital signs of both the donor and recipient were good. The operation was scheduled to last about four hours.

Before the operation, Bob Hickey, 58, met with Dr. Igal Kam, the surgeon whose objections initially postponed the transplant. The meeting was described as a time for "healing the scars of the last several days."

Kam suddenly canceled Monday's transplant operation after learning that Hickey had met his donor, Robert Smitty, 32, through a Web site called MatchingDonors.com. Smitty agreed to give Hickey one of his kidneys before the two men ever met.

MatchingDonors.com charges varying fees -- sometimes $290 a month -- to post profiles of people looking for live organ donors.

Hickey, who has needed a transplant since 1999 because of a kidney disease, was tired of waiting on the national donation list. Within three months of posting his profile on the Web site, he received 500 offers for donations.

It gave me so much hope," he said.

Hickey said his agreement with Smitty is legal. As allowed by law, he is paying Smitty for his family's trip to Denver and his lost wages. He estimated the total cost at $4,800 to $5,000.

The hospital's Clinical Ethics Committee met on Tuesday to evaluate concerns about the transplant, including whether either Hickey or Smitty stood to profit from the arrangement. CBS News Correspondent Lee Frank reports the hospital ethics committee's final approval for the surgery came only after the two men were required to sign a release stating that the donor is not making a profit from the Internet-arranged transplant.

"We're pleased we were able to resolve this quickly with a compassionate exception. But it's also important to note that organ donations continue to be the topic of a broader national debate and more answers are needed," Mimi Roberson, chief executive of Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver, said in a statement.

Roberson insisted, however, that the granting of an exception in this case was not to be construed as an endorsement by the hospital of MatchingDonors.com and said officials would give greater scrutiny to such arrangements in the future.

"They're allowing me to do something just good for this man," said Smitty, a part-time photographer and food distributor. "Maybe they went and found out I don't have a million dollars in the bank somewhere. I feel grateful, privileged to be wearing the shoes I am."

United Network for Organ Sharing, the national organization that matches organ donations to patients in the United States, has come out against the Web site, saying it takes advantage of vulnerable transplant candidates and donors and subverts the equal allocation of organs.

Mark Yarborough, the director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, said he is concerned about the Web site's fairness and potential lack of oversight by medical professionals.

"This kind of system potentially may make the overriding criteria (to receive an organ) the ability to pay," he said.

Jeremiah Lowney, medical director of MatchingDonors.com said the company waives its fees when people cannot afford them. All fees go to maintaining the Web site, the company says.

He also said he sees nothing wrong with people wanting to help a specific group of individuals, such as a firefighter donating his kidney to another firefighter.

"I don't have a problem with that, as long as we can get people organs," he said, adding he doubted the Web site would ever lead to discrimination. "If you're a hateful person, you're not going to be someone who wants to be an organ donor for a stranger in the first place."

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