Paul Dooley was first inspired to start matchingdonors.com after his father died from cancer.
“My father was a great guy. He was an old Boston cop – looked, acted, and sounded like Archie Bunker,” Dooley recalls. “And he had cancer. And during the time when he had cancer, I took care of him.”
Dooley owned a dental clinic in Boston at the time and was pursuing becoming an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. His dad came into the office complaining of a canker sore, but when Dooley looked at it, he immediately knew it was a tumor.
“Once it’s in the jaw, it’s everywhere,” says Dooley.
He and his family gave his father the best care they could, and he says his father would do anything to live, whatever the doctors said he needed to do. So when they asked if he wanted to be on the transplant list for a new kidney when his were shutting down, he of course said yes. However, the doctors later came back and told him he probably only had three years left to live, and the waitlist was seven to 10 years long, making it unlikely he’d be able to get a kidney.
Sure enough, Dooley’s father passed away about three years later without getting the transplant.
Dooley got into a car accident shortly before finishing school, which caused him not to be able to stand for long periods of time, taking away his future career as a surgeon. Luckily, he’s always been an entrepreneur at heart, so he continued on that path and has owned several successful companies since that time. Perhaps it was meant to be, because it gave him the free time he needed to invest in a new entrepreneurial idea.
Ever since his father’s death, the tragedy of that situation has been stuck in his mind.
“It’s one of those things,” Dooley says, “like if you have a red Volvo in college, you always see red Volvos all the time. So I started seeing a lot of people who needed kidney transplants, everywhere I went.”
Dooley started thinking about how online job boards match employers with future employees and wondered if he could use the same model to begin matching altruistic living donors with patients who needed kidneys and other organs.
Of course, the idea was not without its obstacles. As you might imagine, the human organ donation process is a highly regulated one with lots of red tape involved. There were also people in power who believed organ donation should only happen between family members, not strangers.
On top of that, people were still distrustful of doing business on the internet, and no one had ever found an organ donor online before. After the organization was formed and the website set up in the early 2000s, Dooley says not a single soul got on it for months. He and his partner were beginning to think it was a bad idea when he got a call from a particular “tough old codger from Colorado” who turned things around.
The man said, “I took myself off of dialysis. I was just going to die on dialysis because I’ve been on it so long. So can you help me out?”
Dooley told the man they might be able to help him, and the man asked if it was a scam. “I don’t know, could be,” Dooley shrugged. “You’re the first patient.”
Luckily, the tough old man liked his answer and had little to lose. So he got on the website, and within the week, there were 70 other people on the site offering to donate.
The man’s surgery was later canceled because the state of Colorado didn’t believe that he hadn’t purchased the organ, which is illegal to do. The media got hold of the story, and all of a sudden, news about matchingdonors.com and the related debate spread across the world, and the site was packed with new members, both patients and donors.
Since then, more than 1000 one-to-one living organ donations have been made, not to mention the many paired exchanges, which happen when a donor proves not to be a good match for the patient they were paired with but they are a good match for someone else who needs an organ. There are also patients who have needed assistance with logistical and financial issues, and Dooley has been able to help them through grants and donations, some even coming from big names like Tom Brady.
Matchingdonors.com is now the largest living donor database in the world. Dooley estimates that there are 15,000 donors on the site, and more than 10,000 people have been helped by matchingdonors.com to date. Many patients find a donor on the site within six months, versus seven to 10 years for patients on the deceased donor transplant list. And everyone who works for the organization is a volunteer; not a single one of them draws a salary.
For those who might be a little nervous to donate, Dooley says he has plenty of references lined up – people who are willing to talk to new donors about their experiences. There are also only about 300 transplant centers in the U.S., and they are all highly regulated with top-notch quality care, so there’s little to worry about in that sense.
In some cases, you can donate even if you think you’d be disqualified. The elderly, for example, can donate, as long as they’re healthy enough and their organ also goes to someone elderly so that they won’t need a new organ in a few years. Similarly, if you have hepatitis, you cannot donate to someone without the disease, but you can donate to someone who already has hepatitis and is in need of an organ.
Prospective donors who decide to go through with the process will travel to the patient’s home hospital after finding a match to undergo testing before officially getting clearance to donate. If both parties are still willing and able to go through with the surgery, the donor will travel to the patient’s hospital again for the surgery. Some of the procedures can be performed laparoscopically (for the donor, at least), while others are longer and more complicated. Matchingdonors.com pays for all the donor’s expenses and even helps with lost wages.
The majority of donations are kidneys, partially because of the diabetes epidemic. Dooley says a kidney that is part of a pair typically works at only 35% capacity, because that’s all it needs to do. But when its other half gets donated, it picks up the slack and begins working at 70%. It still has capacity to do more as needed, but it’s also completely fulfilling the body’s needs.
“It’s just the craziest thing in the world,” says Dooley. “It’s like you have a spare.”
Similarly, a donor who donates a chunk of their liver often has the missing piece grow back like a starfish regrowing limbs. Lungs, on the other hand, Dooley says, never come back.
One of the unique things about Dooley’s organization is that living donors can be particular about the person to who they want to donate an organ. Dooley has encountered several people who have been through a certain difficult or inspiring situation that motivated them to give to a specific type of person.
One woman, for example, picked a patient named Joey who was in his 40s and had blue eyes. When Dooley asked her why she picked him, she said, “Because when I was young bride, I was out hanging laundry outside, and I had a son named Joey, and he got into chemicals under the sink, drank them, and died. I always wanted to try to find someone to donate to in his memory, and he had piercing blue eyes, and this Joey has blue eyes, and he would be about the age of my son.”
Dooley reports that the pair became best friends after the donation, as many of the matches do, and Joey later even moved in with the woman, as he had no other family. “And they’re like mother and son,” he reports.
Most people wouldn’t think twice before undergoing a surgery if it could save their sibling, their partner, their child, or their parent. But now, more and more people are realizing that a surgery is also a small price to pay to save the life of a stranger. Prospective donors must speak with a psychologist before donating, and Dooley says they are always reassured that if they want to back out, the organization will just tell the patient that there was a medical issue that made it impossible for them to donate. But so far, he says, no one has taken that way out.
Check out matchingdonors.com today. You might just hold the key to someone else’s future.