Lorenzo Benet
November 30, 2009 12:00 PM

Matt Jones tried to calm his frightened fiancée and explain, once again, why a working dad with a blended brood of five would want to donate his kidney to a perfect stranger. “Tell them you’re not doing it,” a teary Meghan Baumer pleaded. But the burly car-rental agency manager from Petoskey, Mich., held his ground. “I want to do something the kids can look at and remember me by,” Matt, 30, explained. “I want to leave a legacy.”

He did that—and much more. For when Matt donated his kidney in July 2007, he set off a chain reaction that changed the lives of 20 people in what has become the nation’s first and longest-running open-ended kidney-transplant chain. How it works: A person who needs a kidney is matched with a stranger in exchange for a friend or family member’s donation of their own kidney to another member of the chain (see box).

Last month, at a hockey game in Toledo, Matt shared hot dogs with Angela Heckman, 34, and Barbara and Ron Bunnell, other members of the life-giving connection and now close friends. “Matt won’t take credit,” says Angela; she received a kidney from Ron, who donated his organ after Barbara got a kidney from Matt. “But he gave us a second chance at life.”

Just a few years ago Barbara, Angela and others were tethered to dialysis machines three times a week and, in a few cases, counting their days. Now Barbara and Ron, both 56, of Phoenix, are taking their grandchildren to Disneyland. Angela, who nearly died twice during her 11 years on dialysis, has returned to college to become an ultrasound technician. Her mother, Laurie Sarvo, 54, donated to Cecilia Janisieski, an Ohio grandmother who lost four toes to complications from kidney failure but, after her transplant, was able to take a Caribbean cruise. “There’s nothing better,” says Laurie, a bar owner, “than watching someone’s life improve.”

The chain’s home base is the University of Toledo Medical Center, where transplant surgeon Mike Rees performs operations and coordinates the program through his nonprofit, the Alliance for Paired Donation. People enter the chain because they need a kidney and have a friend or family member who is willing to donate, but who isn’t a match. Once they enter the chain, Rees’s staff inputs their names, blood types and other information into a database of other patient-and-donor pairs; the computer then matches would-be donors and recipients. “This is an amazing group of people,” Rees says. “This chain could go on forever.”

Still small in number—so far, only a few hundred people have participated—kidney chains rely on an honor system: Once the sick patient gets his kidney, the friend or family member must make good on their promise to donate. “At first I was nervous: Would anyone cheat?” Rees, 46, says. “But these people have watched their own loved ones get kidney failure, have seen their skin turn gray. No one has cheated.”

But it’s not an easy thing to do. Matt underwent X-rays and scans, multiple blood draws and a psychological evaluation before getting the go-ahead to give. After the July 18, five-hour surgery at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, he took a month off. “I was on the operating table and thought, ‘This is creepy,'” Matt recalls. “The day after surgery, I felt like I got hit by a semitruck. But it got better.”

And it seemed well worth it on Oct. 24, when, at the chain’s 2009 reunion in Toledo, some donors and recipients met for the first time. There were tears and hugs, tales of grandchildren and group T-shirts with the motto “Pass It On.” Katherine McKinney, 62, the chain’s 20th member (and whose daughter, Heleena, 29, is on call to donate) embraced donor Kurt Blenkensopp, 41. “Oh, here I go,” said Katherine, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “Thank you so much.”

Watching it all, Matt—who married Meghan in June 2008—shook his head in amazement. “It’s crazy,” he says, “that I changed 20 lives. This has changed my life forever.”

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