A closer look at the mind Of an altruistic kidney donor

Health News

CBS NEWS — Researchers in Washington are studying the brains of altruistic kidney donors: people who donate one of their kidneys to a complete stranger.

As a mother, firefighter and paramedic, putting others first is a way of life for Jo Kummerle, so it wasn’t a difficult choice when she decided to donate one of her kidneys to a total stranger. Kummerle said, “Why would you not? I’ve always been a helper, I always love people. Why wouldn’t I?”

Kummerle is one of just a few hundred people every year who become altruistic kidney donors. Professor Abigail Marsh at Georgetown University is studying the brains of those donors, including Kummerle, to understand why some people are simply more altruistic than others. Professor Marsh says images are telling.

During an interview with Professor Marsh, CBS Correspondent Kenneth Craig asked: “You’re actually able to see an enlarged area of the brain that is associated with their altruism?” She said, “That’s right, they seem to have just a little extra matter, a little extra material in this region of the brain that we know is really important to producing an empathic response. There is a structure in the brain called the amygdala and people that are psychopathic have smaller than average. And in altruistic kidney donors, it’s larger than average by about 8%.”

Kummerle, who lives in Washington State, donated her kidney to Tressa Dombroski in New Jersey. Dombroski has an autoimmune disorder and needed a second kidney transplant after her first started to fail. She said, “When you go through an illness, a serious illness where your organs are failing, you don’t ever take that for granted again. It gives you a whole new perspective on life, really.”

Dombroski was able to thank Kummerle in person when they met for the first time three years ago in Washington. It was an instant friendship. Kummerle said, “It is so amazing. We’ve seen each other six times now. I’ve flown back there a few times, she’s flown over here a few times. Met all our families, she is family.” Dombroski said, “It was absolutely surreal that I felt such a connection. The kidney brought us together, but that was just the beginning of our story, really.”

Nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. are currently waiting for a kidney transplant. For more information about donating, you can go to www.waitlistzero.org/donate.

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