November 5, 2006

With kidney transplants, a question of how to ration life

DENVER — It was Monday, Shawn Stringfellow's usual night to shoot pool.

He gunned the engine of his Harley-Davidson and pulled out of the restaurant parking lot as his fiancee waved goodbye.
He was 30 years old, healthy and happily employed as a heavy-equipment mechanic. Soon, he and Kellie Highland would be married.

"I love you," she mouthed, as his black leather jacket disappeared into traffic.

With his crisp goatee and helmet-less head, Stringfellow looked like a tough biker. "If I wanted to wear a helmet, I'd ride in a car," he liked to say.

He had a soft side, though. He roared down the street wearing jeans covered with tiny hearts that Highland had scribbled in ballpoint pen during dinner.

He'd promised to be home by midnight.

Life is unpredictable. Just before 11 p.m., he finished his last beer at the pool hall and fired up the Harley. A few miles down the interstate, he drove off the side, struck a construction barrel and rolled his motorcycle.

The next day, May 7, 2002, he was on life support. His heart was still beating, but he was brain-dead.

With his family's consent, calls went out to transplant centers throughout the region. He was an ideal organ donor.

Dr. Ben Vernon, the transplant surgeon on call across town at Porter Adventist Hospital, received the news around midnight: two young kidneys — blood type A-positive — available in Denver.

A patient of his stood a strong chance of getting one. This man had waited a long time — three years. To Vernon, it looked like a go.

He instructed his staff to summon the patient to the hospital. The staff also called Dr. David Gillum, another member of the transplant team.

Gillum sat up in bed and shuddered: The patient was 85 years old.

Were they serious?

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