— Nicholas Crace is no stranger to giving to strangers. He spent most of his career directing charities that helped the mentally ill, terminally ill, elderly and others in need.
He also gave mightily to Brigid, his wife of 57 years. After she had a stroke in 2005, he cared for her for six years until she died in the summer of 2011 — and then he was astonished to have time on his hands.
Crace, who lives in the village of Overton in Hampshire, England, became a volunteer driver for a local hospice, but that didn’t keep him busy enough. The lifelong blood donor wanted to continue giving blood, but he was told the cut-off age for donations was 70. He began thinking about donating his bone marrow, but the age limit for that was even younger: 40.
What Crace did instead set records in the United Kingdom and captured the attention of doctors on this side of the Atlantic: At age 83, he became Britain’s oldest living kidney donor and the country’s oldest “altruistic donor.” He opted to give a kidney to a complete stranger.
‘The chance of changing someone’s life’
Crace shared a detailed and thoughtful diary of his journey toward kidney donation with TODAY.com. In it, he reflected on the practical and emotional motives that prompted him.
“The Practical are the facts that I am fit, have no dependents or responsibilities, am retired and have plenty of time,” Crace wrote. “The Emotional are that I have led an easy, comfortable and selfish life, enjoyed excellent health and want to repay some of my good fortune.”
Crace said he realized thousands of people are waiting for a suitable kidney, and many die while waiting.
“I couldn’t have lived with myself with the knowledge that I had had the chance of changing someone’s life and turned it down,” he said.
Dr. Bryan Becker, a transplant physician in Chicago and past president of the National Kidney Foundation, described Crace’s act as exceptional.
“It’s unusual for someone in their 80s to be a living kidney donor,” Becker told TODAY.com. “Living donation is rare in the U.S. even for individuals in their 70s.”
The National Kidney Foundation noted that transplants performed from living donors have advantages over transplants from deceased donors: A kidney from a living donor usually functions immediately, and survival rates of living donor kidneys are higher.
“Altruistic donors are very special people,” Annabel Ferriman, chairwoman of the British charity Give a Kidney — One’s Enough, said in a statement. “They have the imagination to understand the suffering that people go through on dialysis while waiting for a transplant, and the courage and generosity to do something about it.”
Since 2006, when an altruistic living kidney donation campaign kicked off in the United Kingdom, nearly 100 men and women have given healthy kidneys to people they didn’t know, Ferriman said.
In the United States, 160 people donated kidneys anonymously last year, and 443 donated kidneys to strangers through a paired exchange program, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
In Crace’s case, it was important the he had the physical fortitude to do what he wanted to do. Over a period of six months, he had to make 14 separate visits to the hospital for tests and examinations. Each visit required a round trip of just under 100 miles.
In his journal, he recounted how delighted doctors were when tests showed he possessed “Formula One kidneys.”
“It seems that my filtration rate was 95 milliliters a minute compared with 50 milliliters a minute average for someone my age, and is better than most 40-year-olds,” he wrote.
Finally, in late April of this year, Crace underwent a successful surgery and headed home from the hospital with just one kidney. He said he was elated to hear that the anonymous recipient of his kidney, a woman in her 60s, was recovering well.
Crace wrote in his diary about an additional motive — a romantic one — that inspired him to donate a kidney to a stranger:
“The Romantic is best summed up by Tennyson:
‘Death closes all; but something ere the end,
‘Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
‘Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.’ ”