For thousands of Americans who are waiting on a transplant, the donation of an organ can literally be the gift of a lifetime.
In 2014, 325 Ohioans shared this gift through organ donation at the time of their death in which 1,074 organs were transplanted - one donor can potentially save the lives of eight people and also enhance the lives of 50 more people through tissue donations. This number excludes those who are living donors for certain organs.
Last year, there were 29,533 transplants performed in the U.S., and 5,818 were living donations.
While efforts to increase the awareness and encouraging people to list themselves on the Ohio Donor Registry year-round, April marks National Organ Donation Month.
While more than 90 percent of American adults believe that organ donations are a viable life-saving practice. However just more than 58 percent of Ohioans among the state’s more than 7.7 million licensed drivers and 1.37 million state identification card holders are registered organ, eye and tissue donors, according to Jessica Peterson of Lifeline of Ohio in Columbus which works with the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles to maintain the list. The state donor registry was established in July 2002.
The United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government, works with 58 organ procurement organizations across the country to assist in getting the organs to the people who need them. Ohio has four of those organizations that serve the Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Dayton/Toledo regions.
Several factors are taken into consideration to identify the best-matched recipients such as medical compatibility of the donor along with blood type, weight, age, the urgency of need and length of time on the waiting list, according to UNOS. The organization also said generally, preference is given to recipients from the same geographic area as timing is a critical element.
The matching of organs is based strictly on medical criteria. Being famous or wealthy does not matter in this process — the only thing that matters is how sick a person is and who is the best match for the organ, officials said.
As of Thursday, there are 123,353 people that are currently on the national waiting list for an organ and the number continues to rise, according to UNOS. National statistics show that a new name is added to that waiting list every 10 minutes. About 10 years ago, there were more than 92,000 names on the national waiting list.
In Ohio, there are 3,342 on the waiting list. Locally in the greater Cincinnati area, there are more than 700 people waiting for an organ transplant, according to LifeCenter, the local organ procurement organization.
Unfortunately, about 21 people a day across the nation die while waiting for an organ transplant and about every other day, an Ohioan will be among those who die waiting for a transplant, according to statistics. Over the past 10 years more than 2,000 Ohioans died waiting.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen more of an increase in Ohio of people signing up to be an organ or tissue donor,” said Andi O’Malley, LifeCenter’s director of public affairs. “However, apprehension keeps others away as many people do not want to talk about their own mortality. It’s something that needs to be talked about and discussed with family members so they know your wishes about being a donor so they are not surprised.”
She also said another reason why some people do not want to be organ donors are the family and other myths that cycle through the generations. One of those myths is if a person is seriously injured that the doctors won’t work as hard to save their life if they know their an organ donor, which is actually the opposite of what would happen, O’Malley said.
Another reason that is given is that their religion doesn’t support being an organ donor. O’Malley said that all major religions do support organ donations and view it as a final act of love and generosity.
“Everyone can be potential donors,” she said. “No one is too old or too sick to be a donor.”
Some people who have various diseases feel they would not be considered as an organ donor, but don’t realize that recent medical advances in the past several years have now enabled people who have been cancer free for five years, or with diabetes or some types of hepatitis to become donors, O’Malley said. The medical condition at the time of death will determine what organs and tissue can be donated.
The oldest known donor to date donated a liver at the time of his death at the age of 92, according to Lifeline of Ohio.
Ohio law recognizes a driver’s license as legal authorization for organ, tissue and eye donations and their intent to be listed on the state donor registry. The donor registry provides that a valid declaration of a gift of organs, tissues or eyes made prior to a person’s death prevails over any contrary desires of the donor’s family.
An adult can designate themselves as an organ donor when they apply or renew their driver’s license or state identification card. A person may also choose to terminate that authorization at a later date. A person who is 15 1/2 to 18 years of age and has a learner’s permit, driver’s license or state ID card can also become an organ donor if their signature is witnessed by a legally responsible adult. However, their parents or legal guardians can revoke or amend that donation authorization.
At the time of death, the family neither pays for nor receives payment for organ and tissue donations and the costs to harvest the donated organ are paid by the organ/tissue recovery organization or the transplant center. Federal law also prohibits the sale of human organs.
O’Malley said LifeCenter spends quite a bit of time doing outreach and education in the area.
“We want people to make the best decision for themselves,” she said.
Denny Centers, the mayor of Franklin, said his daughter Amy tragically died a few years ago and was an organ donor. At the time of her death, he said he didn’t answer any phone calls as he and his family were so overwhelmed with grief. When he did answer the phone, an area organ procurement organization called for permission to harvest one of her organs.
“I was surprised that they had to get additional permission to do that,” he said.
In retrospect, Centers said he wished he had handled it a little better than he did at the time.
Centers said he remembers lunch years ago with someone who had been a transplant recipient and spoke so much about how grateful he was. Centers and his wife Joni, are designated organ donors.
“But until you meet someone that had a transplant, you don’t realize how special that is,” he said. “If it weren’t for people donating, we’d be in trouble.”
After his daughter’s organ was harvested and transplanted into a boy about 14 years old, Centers said he received a letter and a bronze medallion from the organ procurement organization that contacted him.
“That’s what makes you feel good to know that this helped someone,” he said. “That was a big help for me for some reason.”
Steve Jackson of Hamilton understands first hand about wanting to be a donor but was unable along with needing a transplant.
He said he was about 22 years old when he wanted to donate a kidney to help his father who had poly-cystic disease in his kidneys. However, he could not donate as he had the same disease. The younger Jackson was on dialysis at home 14 hours a day for more than four years and was also needing a transplant.
While he waited on the list, Jackson said he worked part-time at a local carry out.
“Working kept me going because it gave me a reason to get out of bed each day,” Jackson said.
He eventually got the call for the transplant that was done at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis. Jackson said the kidney started working right away and he has had no rejection issues as a result of the transplant.
Dr. Shimul A. Shah, surgical director of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center liver transplant program, said watching a family go through the transformation, going from grieving and heartache to donating the gift of life is “a very powerful thing.”
“If someone is willing or a family is willing to donate an organ, we can only be thankful,” Shah said.
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