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Central Bucks man will donate his kidney in effort to help brother find donor match

Paired exchange program brings hope to patients waiting on kidney transplant list


Tom Savage and his brother, Bert, have enjoyed a close relationship ever since they were little boys.
As two middle children in a large Irish Catholic family of seven siblings, the brothers even shared a bedroom growing up – so nothing would mean more to Tom now than being able to share the gift of life with his brother as a living kidney donor.
But he can’t.
Tom, a 54-year-old Buckingham Township resident, is not a match for Bert – who is currently one of more than 100,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant, according to the National Kidney Registry (NKR), a nonprofit organization that works with a network of 97 member centers to facilitate living donor transplants. Bert, a 56-year-old husband, father of two and lawyer from Tierra Verde, Fla., has been waiting for a kidney transplant since late 2019, currently requiring at-home dialysis – which he administers himself – five days a week, three hours per session, less than two years after learning his kidney was failing for the second time in his life.
For Bert, the first signs of trouble emerged in high school, when a test showed he had protein in his urine. A nephrologist said he must’ve had a bad upper respiratory infection and “an opportunistic bug got in,” Bert recalled. “The doctor said it could be nothing or someday I might need a kidney transplant.”
Several years later, the toll of training for the Chicago Marathon caused the bug to attack his kidneys and in 1992 Bert underwent his first kidney transplant. The kidney was donated by his cousin, Peter Savage.
But in 2019, “after 27 years of taking the rejection medicines, which ironically are toxic to kidneys, the transplant was damaged,” Bert explained. “I noticed edema in my legs, so I had some tests done and my kidney function had decreased.”
This time around, however, no one in his family is a match, and without a living donor Bert could be waiting several more years for a kidney. According to the National Kidney Foundation, kidney transplant candidates wait, on average, three to five years for a kidney from the national deceased donor waiting list.
Since Tom can’t donate one of his own kidneys to his brother, he’s doing the next best thing by giving the gift of life to someone else through the NKR, which helps people facing kidney failure by facilitating paired kidney exchanges.
In paired exchanges, there is a donor who is willing to donate a kidney on a patient’s behalf, but is incompatible with the patient or wants to try to find a better match, the NKR website explains. “With kidney paired exchange, your donor will donate their kidney to another recipient in exchange for a compatible kidney for you.”
In such a scenario, Tom’s kidney “could go to the person in the next operating room, or it might go to somebody in upstate New York or California,” he explained. “That’s the complexity of why you need a robust foundation like the NKR that can make that all happen.”
Matches can also involve multiple pairs of donors and kidney transplant candidates in what is known as a paired exchange chain. Individuals who simply want to help a stranger waiting for a kidney are also encouraged to become living kidney donors.
NKR member centers in the Philadelphia region include Temple University Hospital, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and University of Pennsylvania Hospital, where Tom gets his testing done and where his surgery would take place; Bert would undergo his surgery at Tampa General Hospital.

Last fall, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the surgeries nearly did happen when Tom and Bert learned the NKR had facilitated a six-person match.
“I was a day away from going into the two-week quarantine (a precautionary pandemic protocol) and we found out that it fell through,” Tom recalled. “My brother was so happy and we’re all happy and then it fell through … and you’re crestfallen. There’s no way to describe it.”
“What the nurses say is that until you’re on the operating table, it’s not guaranteed that it’s going to occur,” he added. “Any of those donors could have backed out at any moment. You can say no at any moment and nobody will know it’s you and nobody will know [why].”
Indeed, the journey for those on an organ transplant waiting list can be fraught with frustration – but it’s a journey the Savages have navigated together, as tight-knit families often do.
“Tom is an awesome brother and we have been close since we were kids. … His support and the support of the rest of my family is very important,” Bert said.
In addition to Tom, youngest brother Sean and sister-in-law MaryEllen have also put themselves up as candidates to do a paired exchange, he added.
“For me, I’d do anything for my brother, for my family. I think most people would say the same,” said Tom, a husband, father and the owner of Rita’s Italian Ice and Frozen Custard in Doylestown. “For somebody going through this, be a shoulder, listen to them and do what you can, and just be understanding. Just listening and giving them the opportunity to talk through this, I think, is important.”
While waiting for that all-important call from the staff at Penn, Tom, a registered organ donor on his license, was inspired to share his family’s story – and spread awareness about NKR paired exchanges – after reading about a Doylestown resident who has also been searching for a living kidney donor.
“It seems like the amount of resources we put into this as a country and a society just isn’t up to the actual need,” Tom said.
More than 6,000 people donate a kidney every year, according to the NKR, but the number of living donors pales in comparison to the number of patients waiting for a kidney transplant.
“With an adult population in the U.S. of hundreds of millions, the kidney wait list of approximately 100K could be resolved in no time,” Bert said. “I am hopeful that by raising awareness of this crisis that more people will understand that they can save a life and become a donor, whether it be to someone they know, or just someone in need. I believe that the American ‘can-do’ attitude, if we can train it on this crisis, can resolve the crisis quickly.”
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