Melissa Arlio is an upbeat, healthy 26-year-old from a big Italian family in Wayne, NJ. She grew up playing sports and ran her first marathon in 2009. With nothing to gain and a good deal to lose (namely, her job) Arlio elected to undergo surgery and donate one of her kidneys to a complete stranger last March. She did so in order to start an altruistic kidney chain through the National Kidney Registry.
"I've always been probably overly empathetic to a fault," Arlio said the other day, now a little over two months into her recovery. "God gave me a healthy body, how could I not share that with someone who needs it, at very little detriment to myself?"
Family and friends aren't always a perfect match for the sick loved ones they want to help, so these chains incentivize strangers to help one another.
A chain might go like this: an altruistic donor gives a kidney to a stranger, and in exchange for that kidney, a healthy friend or family member of the recipient agrees to donate his or her kidney to another person in need. The chain goes on and on, with people paying the donation forward to others they match up with.
Arlio didn't even know anyone suffering from kidney failure before she considered starting a chain. She simply donated out of the goodness of her heart, after feeling inspired by an article in Glamour about another altruistic donor.
"I had no idea you could donate to a stranger and it was such an easy recovery," she said, noting that people typically start feeling better after about two weeks after surgery. "Considering you're saving someone's life, it doesn't seem like a lot to give up two weeks."
While Arlio's family members were eventually supportive of her decision, they initially had a hard time understanding why she'd be willing to have unnecessary surgery. But she did her research and came up with an answer for just about everything, like how living with one kidney might affect her health long-term.
"The only thing you have to avoid is activity where you might get hit in the kidney," she said. "So I could never do UFC cage fighting, but that's not going to affect my life anyway."
But what if she got sick down the road and needed a kidney?
"If I ever need a kidney, my chances are better than the average person," she said. "If you need a kidney [and you were a donor] you get moved to the top of the kidney list."
On March 8th, Arlio underwent the surgery. At the time, she had been working as a copywriter at a design agency in Manhattan. She had secured the time off from her bosses, arranging to take one week of paid leave and spend the next working from home. A week before her surgery though, she was laid off.
"They framed it to be that they didn't have enough work for me anymore but that's not true," she said, adding that while her company was in financial trouble, she is convinced she was fired as a result of her decision to donate.
Still, Arlio is trying to turn that situation into a positive one by working with the National Kidney Registry to lobby for the protection of donors' rights.
"I feel like my mission hasn't really ended," she said.
As a result of Arlio's surgery, a 56-year-old woman from New Jersey she has never met now has her kidney. Two other people have already received new kidneys because of the chain, and she's keeping tabs to find out how many more transplants occur. In March, it was reported that a similar chain netted 16 transplants.
"A lot of people have said to me 'You ended up losing your job, would you do it again?'" she said.
There have been drawbacks, Arlio acknowledged, but she considers them minimal. She gets tired now at 9:30pm instead of 11:30pm and probably will for the next 6 months. She's running slower, and she'll have to find a new job, of course. Still, she has no regrets.
"Whether I never hear from my recipient, whether I lost my job, I feel like everything happens for a reason," she said. "If had an extra kidney, I'd do it again."
This article has been updated to include a link to the Glamour article that helped inspire Melissa to donate a kidney.