SUPERIOR, Nebraska (STPNS) -- Larry Lunzer is back at work managing the Superior Pamida store after a June 17 kidney transplant at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

For 15 months before the transplant, Lunzer was attached to a dialysis machine in Hastings for 15 hours a week, plus travel time. Lunzer's transplant was part of a "donor swap." The Nebraska Medical Center takes part in a nationwide initiative to match more people needing kidney transplants with people who are willing to donate. It works by pairing two sets of donors and recipients who are incompatible with each other.



In Lunzer's case, each of his seven siblings were eager to help, but none of them served as a match. Lunzer's kidney failure years ago was attributed to lupus.

"By the time I was about to have the surgery, there were also four people here in Superior willing to donate a kidney for me, but none of them were a match either," Lunzer said.

Joe Vasquez, Papillion, suffered from diabetes which diminished his kidney function to the point where he also needed a transplant. Like Lunzer, Vasquez was on dialysis three times a week. His wife, Deborah, immediately stepped forward to donate one of her kidneys, however when they found out they were not a match for transplant, doctors at the Nebraska Medical Center told them about the option of swapping.

While Lunzer's brother, Danny, Normal, Ill., was not a match for him, he was a match for Joe Vasquez. And while Deborah Vasquez was not a match for her husband, she was a match for Larry Lunzer.

So instead of donating a kidney to his brother, Danny donated his kidney to Joe Vasquez, a man he'd never met. And instead of donating her kidney to her husband, Deborah Vasquez's kidney went to Larry Lunzer, a man she'd never met.

Several medical groups across the country have banded together to increase the number of potential patients.

However, a national search was not necessary in this case because both recipients were already patients at the Nebraska Medical Center.

The operations took place nearly simultaneously; one team of surgeons removed Deborah Vasquez's kidney while another team removed a healthy kidney from Danny Lunzer. His kidney was taken immediately to another operating room where it was transplanted into Joe Vasquez. The kidney taken from Vasquez's wife went immediately to the operating room where it was transplanted into Larry Lunzer.

"The swap allowed us to have the transplant sooner," Lunzer said. "One week after Danny and I decided to take part in the swap, the phone rang and the process began."

The program is part of a larger initiative nationwide through the Paired Donation Network. People interested in taking part in a swap transplant are entered into a nationwide database. Medical screenings and physical exams match donors with recipients. When a swap transplant is agreed upon, donors travel to the recipient's hospital. Travel was not an issue for the Vasquez and Lunzer families; both were being treated at the Nebraska Medical Center. Their operation was the third donor swap at the medical center.

This was Lunzer's second kidney transplant. His first was in 1985 at a different hospital. The donor then was his sister, Connie. He eventually lost half of the kidney from the transplant in 1985, but it served him well for 20 years. Doctors then told him it would probably last about 15 years. He said he is amazed at how far the science of organ transplantation has come in 23 years.

"The technology and the knowledge has increased tenfold from what it was then," Lunzer said. "When I left the hospital in 1985, I was very swollen from all the drugs. Now, I look like me. I feel like me."

Lunzer was supposed to return to work half-days last Monday, however by then he was already back at work full time. And playing a little golf, but being very careful.

"I'd really like to emphasize to anyone out there needing a kidney transplant, but afraid of the surgery, that the technology has really advanced. It's not that bad," Lunzer said.

The average wait for a kidney for people in their 40s, like Lunzer and Vasquez, is nearly five years. However, they waited only about six months after the doctors suggested the organ swap.

There are reportedly almost 77,000 Americans awaiting kidney transplant, including 374 in Iowa and 263 in Nebraska. Approximately 360 transplants have been performed through donor swaps in this country, some involving more than two parties.

The Vasquezes and Lunzers have not yet met in person. Lunzer said if everyone is still healthy in five years, he would love to get together and express his thanks in person.

Lunzer is originally from Brookings, S.D. He has been managing the Superior Pamida store for 12 years. He is engaged to be married to Jody Wulf, but they have not set a date yet.