Would you give a kidney to someone you'd never met?

These people did – and they're behind a new charity that wants more like them to help clear the NHS waiting list

They are aged from 39 to 73, include a former nightclub owner, a graphic designer and a crime scene investigator, and have one thing in common: they have all given a kidney to a stranger.

Yesterday, a group of 12 altruistic donors launched a campaign to help clear the NHS transplant waiting list by recruiting volunteers prepared to give an organ as they have done – to someone they don't know.

A poll for the new charity, Give a Kidney – One's Enough, found almost one in 10 people (8 per cent) would consider donating a kidney to a stranger, but many do not know it is possible or have mistaken views about the risks.

There are 7,000 people on the waiting list for a transplant and 300 die each year before an organ becomes available. If 1 per cent of those who said they would be prepared to donate a kidney to a stranger did so, the waiting list would be wiped out more than four times over, the charity said.

Paul Gibbs, renal transplant surgeon at Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust, said: "This would save countless lives and potentially save millions of pounds for the NHS. No one thinks that we can achieve this overnight but we all do believe that there are many hundreds, maybe thousands of people who would like to become altruistic live donors and we as a charity want to help them."

Living donors have accounted for a growing proportion of organs for transplant in recent decades as the operation to remove a kidney has become safer and research has shown that people live as long with one kidney as with two. But most donors are relatives or friends of those they donate to. Although altruistic donation is still rare, the numbers involved almost doubled last year and are sharply up again this year. In all 88 people have donated their kidneys to strangers since the law was changed to allow it in 2006.

Dr Gibbs said: "These people are not crackpots or loons. They are very normal yet extraordinary individuals. They come from all walks of life and many have been blood donors or charity workers – but not all. For some this is the first time they have given anything." Annabel Ferriman, chair of Give a Kidney, and a kidney donor, said : "Everyone knows that they can donate blood but they don't know that they can donate a kidney. While most in our poll said they would donate to a family member or a friend, there were still 8 per cent who said they would donate to a stranger, which is equivalent to three million people."

"Not only do transplants save lives and improve the quality of life for those on dialysis, they also save money for the NHS, amounting to £25,000 a year following transplantation. We think the altruistic spirit is much stronger in society than cynics would have us believe."

Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, who received a transplant from his daughter, Lauren, after he and his wife suffered kidney failure caused by eating poisonous mushrooms, said: "She saved my life. People who have given kidneys altruistically are the most phenomenal people. If we can increase the number by even one it will have been worthwhile."

Go to Giveakidney.org for more details

The operation

The surgery carries a risk though this is lower than widely assumed, with a mortality rate one third of that involved in having a hip replacement (one in 3000 compared with one in 1,000). Once a kidney has been replaced, the remaining one takes over and in most cases restores renal function. "If you did a blood test on our donors you would be hard pushed to tell they only had one kidney," said Paul Gibbs, kidney transplant surgeon at Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth. The operation is "very safe" and recovery is two to four weeks for most donors, he added.

Jeremy Laurance

Case studies...

Chris Kendall, 50, a civil servant from Bristol, donated a kidney in 2010 and has met the recipient

"I decided to donate after seeing a news report in 2009. I went to my regional transplant centre who told me everything that would be involved. It took nine months to get through all the tests and ensuring that you and your family are aware of all the risks. I had the operation on Friday and was back on my sofa the following Monday.

Your recipient remains anonymous at first, but he and I were able to exchange letters, and both us said we would like to meet. Our transplant co-ordinator put us in touch and we agreed to meet up in a country pub in the Cotswolds. He wanted to explain what a difference it had made. He had been on dialysis for seven nights a week, so couldn't travel and had a very restricted diet. Since getting the kidney, he has a full life like the rest of us. To hear that was fantastic and he happened to be a nice bloke as well which was a bonus.

Jenny Dale, 47, gave her right kidney to a stranger earlier this year. She works with the police as a crime scene investigator and is married with two children aged 17 and 20

"When you read up and find how safe it is, it isn't that big a deal. You can live with one kidney and there are 7,000 people out there who need one."

She had been a blood donor but did not realise until she read a newspaper article about altruistic kidney donation that it was possible to give a kidney in the same way – to a stranger. "As I explored more I realised it was something I wanted to do. My family were really supportive although nerves did kick in just before the operation and I realised it was hard for them. But now they are proud of me."

The assessment took several months until she was finally approved to donate. Although she had "quite a difficult post-operative recovery," she has since cycled 2,000 miles for a kidney charity. "From the moment I was matched to a potential recipient I felt the kidney was no longer mine. I was just babysitting it for its new owner."

Di Franks, 59, unemployed from Lambourn, Berkshire, donated a kidney to a stranger in 2010

"I always knew you could donate to family or friends. Then a friend of mine in America emailed me one day to tell me they were donating to a stranger and my jaw hit the floor. I did some research into it. It wasn't legal over here then, this was late 2005, but the idea never left me.

"In 2007 I read about the first altruistic donor and then spent about a year researching the operation. One consideration was my family – what if my son ever needed a kidney for example? But we're a fit healthy family. Another was whether I was too old, but the hospital assured me I was not.

"I hate being asked if I'm a generous person – yes, I do help people. But we're all naturally helpers. This was just something I felt I could do.

"The operation itself was not problematic. I was eating tea and biscuits within a couple of hours of coming round. The pain was minimal – it only hurt getting in and out of bed, and only for about a week. As for the long-term, I was advised to drink about one-and-a-half litres of water a day, not to take anti-inflammatory tablets and not to play contact sports – that was all.

"How many thousands of women each year go through cosmetic surgery? I'd certainly rather have a kidney out than a tummy tuck."

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