Two-year-old Dominik Lawson spends more time at the University of Minnesota Medical Center than he does at his family's home in Taconite, Minnesota. Dominik doesn't have kidneys. Every 48 hours his mother Kelly brings him to the hospital where he's hooked up to a machine that filters waste from his blood.
"He knows all the nurses names," says Lawson. "Every time a nurse walks by from dialysis he's always talking and waving to them."
As if on cue, moments later, Dominik spots his favorite nurse.
"Amber," shouts Dominik, "Come here, Amber."
Dominik was born three months early. Doctors delivered him at 28 weeks because his kidneys had stopped working. A year later, when he finally weighed enough for surgery, Kelly Lawson gave her son one of her kidneys. Dominik's body rejected the new organ.
"The doctors worked night and day to save the kidney but unfortunately it just wasn't meant to be. So it completely failed," says Lawson.
Other family and friends volunteered to be donors. But of the 90 people tested, none of them was a match. Now Dominik is on a waiting list for a new kidney. His family has been told he may have to wait five or six years for a deceased donor's organ, unless a living kidney donor is found in the meantime.
“The biggest problem in solid organ transplantation today is the lack of donors.”Dr. Arthur Matas
Dr. Arthur Matas is keenly aware of the situation facing dialysis patients. Matas is a transplant surgeon at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.
"The biggest problem in solid organ transplantation today is the lack of donors," says Lawson. The donor deficit is caused in part by the success rate of kidney transplants. The procedure has improved significantly in recent years, so more dialysis patients want a transplant, Lawson says. There are also many more patients today in their 60's and 70's who are getting kidney transplants.
Matas believes anything he can do to find more kidneys for his patients is worthwhile. That belief prompted him to try an experiment in the late 1990's that has since brought more than 50 new kidney donors to the University. It's called the non-directed donor program and it's designed for living donors who want to donate one of their kidneys to any patient who might need it, even though they might not ever get the chance to meet the recipient.
At the time, no hospital in the country would accept donors who expressed an interest in doing this type of "no strings attached" donation, Matas says.
"The concern was why would somebody be motivated to do something like this - to put themselves through the risk of surgery without having any potential benefit in seeing the good of it?"
Matas and his colleagues shared those concerns. But those worries have gradually gone away as donors have come forward.
"What we've learned is that these people as a group, and obviously as individuals they have different motivations, but as a group they seem to have a long history of doing good things for other people," says Matas.
As it turns out only about six or seven people donate a kidney this way to the university each year. That could be because the University deliberately doesn't advertise its program. Putting the burden on donors to contact the hospital first, ensures that they're highly motivated to donate their kidney, according to Matas.
Two years ago Audrey Bergengren heard about the program from a co-worker. At first she thought it was a crazy idea. But then a few months later, she decided that she wanted to become a non-directed donor. She was 24-years-old.
"For me it had a lot to do with faith," says Bergengren. "I kind of felt like maybe God wants me to do something really big."
Bergengren's operation was a success for her and her recipient. She still hasn't found out who received her kidney, but she says that's okay with her. "I don't regret it because that was something that I was able to do. If I were in the same position, I hope somebody would do that for me."
Dominik Lawson's family is hoping there are others who feel the same way. A living kidney donor could help reunite the family, Kelly Lawson says. For the past eight months she and Dominik have been living in Minneapolis near the dialysis clinic while her husband and two other children are a three hour drive away in Taconite.
But if a donor doesn't come forward soon, her family will begin making some changes, Lawson says.
"We have decided that if we don't have a donor by the first of the year that we're going to put our house up for sale in Taconite and probably relocate here so we can all be together."
Lawson says it will be sad to leave the community where she grew up. But she says it would be worse for her family to be separated for years while they wait for a kidney for Dominik.