As the civil war in Lebanon raged, 12-year-old Naim Issa experienced a tragedy that would then determine his future. He watched his father die of kidney disease because the conflict cut off resources to hospitals. His dad could not access the treatment that was keeping him alive.
"In 1989 during the civil war in Lebanon, resources for dialysis were very scarce," says Issa. "I remember my father going to the dialysis unit and getting turned away because there was no power to run the machines. When you don't do dialysis and the kidney toxins start to accumulate, you can't survive. He died because he could not get dialysis."
Issa turned his grief into action.
"That's why I decided to become a kidney doctor," says Issa. "In particular, I wanted to do transplantation, because I feel the joy of patients who get a new kidney and live longer. I see people ditching dialysis and having a new life. The gift of life. It's amazing."
Dr. Naim Issa, now a kidney specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says that dialysis -- the treatment unavailable to his father -- replaces the function of the kidney and filters toxins from blood. Dialysis is life-saving, but can be grueling for patients and their caregivers because it is time consuming and exhausting. Issa says kidney transplantation, while not without risk, prolongs survival and increases quality of life.
"If you put both modalities side-by-side, transplant is always better," says Issa.
But, according to the National Kidney Foundation, close to 5,000 people die every year waiting for kidneys because there are not enough donor organs available. Issa says the situation is a public crisis. He, along with a team of researchers, want to change that. They have confirmed a way to safely expand the donor pool so that more people may receive transplants.
"We now know that people over age 40, who have well-controlled, mild hypertension and who are otherwise healthy, can safely donate kidneys," says Issa.
In 2002, Mayo Clinic started allowing people who met that criteria to donate kidneys. Issa's research, published in the journal, Clinical Transplantation, involved following the outcomes of the donors for the last 20 years. Issa says results of the study were reassuring and very exciting, because all of the donors did very well.
Before 2002, people over the age of 40 with elevated blood pressure were excluded from donation. That's because over time, uncontrolled hypertension, or high blood pressure, increases your risk of kidney disease, heart disease and other issues.
Issa says that not all people with mild to moderate (130/80) high blood pressure who want to donate one of their kidneys will be able to do so.
"Our top priority is the health of the donor. Having high blood pressure is no longer a contraindication to donating a kidney. However, we still have to be very selective," says Issa.
All donors go through strict screening and thorough examination. Only the healthiest of the healthy will proceed. In fact, Issa adds that kidney donors tend to live longer than the general population because they are healthy before surgery and must continue to make positive lifestyle choices, such as eating well, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and restricting salt intake, afterwards.
"Highly selected individuals with controlled hypertension do very well," says Issa. "They fare as well as people who don't have the diagnosis of high blood pressure. In doing this, we open up the possibility of more people being potential donors."
And more donors means that more people will be able to receive a new kidney and the chance at a longer, healthier life.
"What happened to my father has inspired me to help improve the lives of people with kidney disease," Issa says.
If you'd like more information about kidney donation, contact the Mayo Clinic Transplant Center at 866-227-1569.
Vivien Williams is a video content producer for NewsMD and the host of "Health Fusion." She can be reached at email@example.com.