Paula Campolargo regularly updates her Facebook page, tweets, posts ads on Craigslist, hands out fliers at church and hangs signs on grocery store bulletin boards.
But her two-year-long search has failed to turn up anyone able to give her the kidney that she so desperately needs.
“It’s disappointing, but I’ll never stop,” she said. “I can’t. There has to be someone out there willing to do it.”
As the need for donor organs, especially kidneys, continues to outstrip the supply, more and more people are launching their own searches, with many of them, like Camplargo, turning to social media.
“It’s like the Wild West in a sense that we are desperate,” said Helen Harper of Greenburgh, who waited six years for her turn on a waiting list for a kidney from a deceased donor. “People are dying waiting for organs.”
Kidneys are by far the most commonly transplanted organ.
In 2013, 16,895 kidney transplants took place nationwide. Of those, 11,161 came from a deceased donor, but more than half, 5,734, came from a living donor.
And an increasing number of those living donors are unrelated to the recipient.
Just 20 years ago, stranger or “altruistic” donations, were rare, said Anne Paschke, a spokeswoman for the United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages the nation’s organ transplant system. Paying for an organ is illegal in the United States.
The trend troubles some ethicists.
“It may not go to the person who needs it the most or the person who can benefit the most,” said Arthur L. Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University who has written extensively about the ethics of transplantation.
“The rich do better than the poor; outgoing, technologically skilled people do better than shy, non-computer literate people,” Caplan said.
And a person’s overall health and odds for recovery may not figure in at all, he said.
Dr. Stuart Greenstein, a Bronx surgeon in the Montefiore Einstein Center for Transplantation was a member of a national committee that looked at the issue of people soliciting for organs.
The committee concluded that soliciting for live donors was permissible, but asking for direct donation from the family of a deceased donor violated the United Network for Organ Sharing protocols that determine who gets the organ.
“The decreased donor pool is not growing,” he said. “We have to supplement the supply by people getting altruistic, living donors. It’s a wonderful thing as long as it’s done properly.”
Phillip Cunningham thought his only option when his kidneys failed was a years-long wait for a donor organ along with three-times weekly dialysis. Then a neighbor told him about a Massachusetts-based Internet organization called MatchingDonors.com.
The group charges a maximum lifetime $595 fee to create a profile to try to attract a donor. Two weeks later, he was contacted by a stranger in Florida who offered him a kidney.
Cunningham received a new kidney in February, just 94 days after signing up with the service.
“My donor felt that what was a minor inconvenience for him would make a huge difference in the life of someone like me,” Cunningham said. “I’m a very, very lucky man.”
Others find a willing donor by chance.
Retired New York City police officer Robert Martin’s donor, Anthony Ferrante, lived on the same street as his mother.
When Ferrante heard that Martin — whose health was damaged from an illness attributed to the months he spent at the rubble of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11 — needed a kidney transplant, he offered to see if he could donate.
“Our kids are the same age,” said Ferrante, an accountant. “I wanted him to be able to see them grow up.”
The pair were a match and the surgery took place in February.
“He gave me a second chance at life,” Martin said. “If not for altruistic people like that, so many more would die on the waiting list.”