Cash for kidneys: Idea of selling organs gains ground

Posted at 10:00 PM, May 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-03 09:41:33-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Preston Jenson did something most people don’t.  He gave a kidney to someone he never met.

“I’ve never really thought about being compensated or anything like that, so, I think for me it’s more about the helping,” he said.

Jenson’s medical expenses for the surgery were covered, but there were other costs.

Jenson used his own vacation time to take two weeks off work to recover after the April 19 procedure. Two months following the surgery, he’s on light duty, something that is feasible with his job in a medical office.

Not everyone can afford to be a living donor like Jenson, but that could change.

Paying living organ donors

The Journal of the American Medical Association published an article in March summarizing a survey about paying living organ donors.

"The article basically said if we were to give you $10,000 for your kidney would you be interested -- most people said probably not, but then they went up to $50,000,” said Dr. Jeffrey Campsen, surgical director of Kidney and Pancreas Transplant at the University of Utah Hospital.

The survey found most people would be motivated to donate a kidney for $50,000 and most voters would support the idea of amending laws to allow it. Currently, selling organs is illegal.

The survey, which has gained the attention of transplant surgeons like Campsen, could be a starting point to swing the conversation.

Should paying donors be allowed?  It’s a question full of ethical concerns.

“If you’re poor, are you more likely to be taken advantage of because that money means more to you.  That’s what we don’t want to do,” Campsen said.

Campsen thinks the discussion needs to happen far from clinics where patient lives are on the line, but the discussion needs to start and the reason is simple.

It’s a fact, it happens, people die on the wait list right now…This compensation is all about increasing the organ pool,” Campsen said.

A second chance

Time is critical for patients waiting for a kidney. Most on the waiting list are in dialysis treatment, a process of filtering blood out of the body and performing the function of a working kidney. It’s time consuming, often three days a week, three and a half hours each time.

It is a life saver, but only for so long. Campsen said after eight years on dialysis, a patient’s odds of survival are only 50 percent.

Ulukilupetea ‘Tea’ Nio is a St. George mother of five.  She has been on dialysis for over 13 years. For much of that time she has been too sick to be considered for a kidney transplant.

Late in 2015, that changed, and in April, she got a call.  Be ready.  An organ donor match had been found.

“To give a part of you to another person, you know, it’s a great sacrifice,” said Nio just a few hours before her transplant surgery last month.

She didn’t know who was making the donation, only that is was a living donor.

Surrounded by her family, she was wheeled down the hallway with dreams of being able to travel again and not worry about dialysis. Her hope is to travel back to Tonga with her boys to teach them about their heritage.

A few days after a successful surgery, Nio got a chance to meet the person who gave up a kidney to save her life.

With IV bags hanging at both of their sides, a smile that seemed to be mixed with a grimace born from recovery, Preston Jenson and Tea Nio stood together for the first time.

Both are recovering well.

The need for organ donors

Nio and Jenson will tell you it is best if someone is willing to give from the goodness of their heart. But Campsen, one of the surgeons who took a kidney from Jenson and put it into Nio, will tell you as heartwarming and inspiring as people find their story, there’s another reality.

“There’s thousands of people who need organs and there’s not enough organs,” Campsen said.

Campsen questions the science behind the $50,000 figure and believes it will never be a cash payment, perhaps a tax credit or college credit instead.

But for the sake of his patients like Nio, he’s one of a growing number of surgeons who believe paying for organs needs to be part of the conversation.

You can read more about the JAMA article here:

For information on becoming a living donor visit: or

You can also designate on your driver’s license that you would like to be an organ donor in the event that you suffer a tragedy.  Visit for more information.