Penn Hills woman to donate kidney to man she never met

Chris Togneri
| Saturday, June 13, 2009

Nancy Murrell has a blurry digital photo of Anthony Cottman she can call up on her iPhone.

Murrell has never met the 45-year-old Brooklyn resident and has only spoken to him a few times. Yet, later this month, she will undergo surgery in New York City to give Cottman one of her kidneys.

And she doesn't think there's anything odd about that at all.

"This is something I think any human being would do," said Murrell, 47, of Penn Hills, a marketing manager for the Downtown legal firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

"There are people who are suffering, and this is something I can easily do. I'm in great health. I've had great opportunities in my life to do many things. This is my karmic payback to the universe."

Murrell is what transplant experts call an "altruistic donor," or someone who gives an organ to anyone in need, even strangers, simply because she can.

"There are lots of folks that are, quite honestly, just good Samaritans," said Angela Barber, a living kidney donor coordinator at UPMC's Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute. "I've had people who called me and said, 'I want to donate to anyone on the list. ... I just want to give back.'"

Murrell got the idea after hearing an interview with Chaya Lipschutz of Brooklyn on National Public Radio. Lipschutz donated her kidney in 2005 to a stranger after reading an advertisement in a weekly paper and now acts as a liaison between donors and recipients through a Web site that connects the two.

Cottman always figured he'd be the person on the giving side.

"My view was that I was going to give someone my kidney," he said. "I never thought I'd need one."

Now he has anemia and suffers through 12 hours of dialysis a week. The treatment -- while lifesaving -- makes working nearly impossible. And it complicates everything in his life, from finding time to "be spontaneous" and go to movies with friends, to simply falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning.

"It is really difficult," said Cottman, who worked in the fashion industry before he fell ill in 2004. "I just put blinders on and went through it."

Then, in March, he got a phone call from Murrell, who learned of his case from Lipschutz.

"I said, 'Hey, guess what• We match,' " Murrell recalled. "And there was a silence that made me think the call had been dropped. It was like a minute. I said, 'Anthony -- are you there?' "

He was there. But he couldn't speak.

"You know, it's not that I didn't believe it would happen," Cottman explained. "It's just ... it really took a while to sink in. It took a while to understand that, you know what• There is a next step. This is really happening."

Altruistic donors are becoming more common, Barber said, noting that when a child recently fell ill in Pittsburgh, 23 people called her and offered their organs.

The number of such donations has been on an upswing over the past decade in the United States, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing, the national organ allocation clearinghouse. In 2008, 106 people donated one of their kidneys anonymously to a person they didn't know, up from two in 1998. More people are donating kidneys to specific people they're not related to, according to the network. Last year 1,250 people donated kidneys to specific unrelated recipients, up from 361 a decade earlier.

Surgery for Murrell and Cottman is scheduled for June 25 at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. They will meet for the first time just days before.

"I feel like I know her already," Cottman said. "I'm anxious to meet her, and I just want to give her a hug and thank her as much as I can."

Murrell is not worried about the surgery -- UPMC's Barber described the procedure as "very low risk" and said donors typically can return to work in two to six weeks.

But she is worried about one thing: Murrell hasn't told her parents.

"Um, yeah," she said with a laugh. "They don't know yet."

She figures she has some time. "They're on an island in Canada, where they spend every summer," she said.

"I just don't want to worry them," Murrell said. "My fantasy is to tell them afterward when everything is OK. But I think I'm going to have to call them soon."

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