M.P.H. student donates kidney

Mark and Matt photo
Mark Biscone (left) and Matt Aklan one week post transplant.

HOUSTON – Mark Biscone, Ph.D., looks like the typical mid-career student at UTHealth School of Public Health, as he buzzes between his classes and internship at Harris Health System. He’s full of energy and purpose.

It’s hard to believe that just two months ago he was in a hospital bed, recovering from major surgery. In April, Biscone took a break from his studies in healthcare management and policy to donate his left kidney to a family friend. The surgery was a success, and saved the recipient, Matt Aklan, from a life dependent on dialysis.

Now Aklan is running, cycling and spending time with his 10-year-old son, and Biscone is back to the busy life of a student and health care professional. Three scars on his abdomen are the only visible evidence of his sacrifice.

Lifesaving opportunity outweighed risks

Biscone’s transplant journey began last summer, when he learned of Aklan’s urgent need for a kidney via Facebook. He felt compelled to help. Biscone has donated blood since he was a teenager, and is a registered bone marrow donor, so the idea of donating a kidney didn’t seem that big of a leap.

“I think that when you are in the position to help someone who is less fortunate, you should take that opportunity,” Biscone says.

Still, the father of four children ranging in age from 4 to 18, didn’t make the decision to donate a kidney lightly. Biscone kept his family in mind when considering the risks of kidney donation, which are the same as those for any major surgery. Ultimately, he felt the opportunity to save a life outweighed the risks, potential pain and time off for recovery. He would donate.

The next few months were a blur of medical tests, including 20 separate needle sticks on a single day. Along the way, a lab test uncovered a single protein mismatch that ruled out Biscone as a donor. The news was disappointing, but Biscone switched gears and prepared to donate to another recipient who was a better match — potentially launching a chain donation that would match donors and recipients across the country and find Matt a more perfectly matched kidney.

A few months later, a follow-up test revealed that Biscone was a match for Aklan after all. The surgery was a go. Biscone notified his professors, who worked with him to accommodate the impending procedure and recovery.

“As a student, Mark has always been happy to help others and be a mentor, so donating a kidney fit right in with Mark’s altruistic nature. It was a courageous decision,” says Lee Revere, Ph.D., associate professor of management, policy and community health at UTHealth School of Public Health, and one of Biscone’s professors.

Biscone traveled to Aklan’s hometown of Chicago to make the donation. There, surgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago removed his left kidney and transplanted it into Aklan. The pair spent the next 36 hours recovering at opposite ends of the same hospital unit — placed that way to encourage them to get up and visit each other. The movement helped speed their recovery. Ten days later, Biscone was back on a plane to Houston. He was tired, sore and sported a sizeable scar, but he also had a tremendous sense of fulfillment. Although Biscone admits recovery may have been a bit tougher than he anticipated.

“But I would do it again, even given what I know about the surgery now,” he says. “Because Matt is able to live without dialysis, his quality of life is so much better.”

Encourages others to donate life

Two months after the surgery, Biscone is back on track with his studies. He’s completing his practicum (internship) at Harris Health, working on projects to streamline tuition reimbursement and helping develop a unified leadership development program. He intends to use his M.P.H. to broaden and solidify his health care expertise, and bolster his career prospects in health care management.

Biscone hopes his donation experience inspires others to become kidney donors. According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 100,000 people are currently on the waiting list for kidney transplants, and an estimated 13 people die each day while waiting for a life-saving kidney transplant. Biscone says organ donation has a tangible impact on public health, because it saves hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on dialysis treatments for a single recipient. That money and resources can then be reallocated elsewhere.

“Being a kidney donor gives you a chance to be a real hero, because you can save a life,” he says.

— Anissa Anderson Orr