ESCANABA - Each day in the United States, 12-14 people die on waiting lists for organ donations. More than 76,300 people - nearly 2,500 in Michigan, alone - await donations, with another person added to the waiting list every 14 minutes.
Doctors have learned how to transplant virtually every organ in the human body, as well as corneas, skin, bone and even body parts such as hands. For a person facing death because of a failing kidney, pancreas, heart or liver, it's an unbelievable opportunity.
While some organs and tissues may be taken from a living donor, a large number of transplants come from persons who have agreed to donate their organs and body parts after death.
A study published in Science found organ donation rates of 99 percent and higher in countries such as France and Poland where donation is the default, and those who would rather not must opt out. In the United States, where it's necessary to opt in, the consent rate is only 28 percent.
If you wish to become a donor, you must take the initiative:
- Sign up with the donor registry in your state.
- Indicate your choice when you obtain or renew your driver's license.
- Sign and carry with you a donor card (available at OrganDonor.gov).
- Tell your family that you wish to be a donor. In many cases, hospitals require consent from the next of kin, regardless of what the person's driver's license may state.
You can also state your wishes in writing in your will or advance directives. This should not be the only way of indicating your choice, however, since these papers may not be read in time to allow organs to be donated.
Unless you specify a recipient, the law provides that your organs will be transferred to the appropriate institution and allocated to individuals on the waiting list according to urgency of need, biological match and geographic proximity.
Although celebrities who need organ transplants may get more publicity, they do not get special attention. It's illegal to distribute organs on the basis of wealth or celebrity status, and the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) conducts an internal audit on all such cases to make sure allocation rules were properly followed.
All costs of removal and transplantation are paid by the recipient rather than the donor. And being an organ donor will not affect funeral arrangements or the possibility of having an open casket.
Although theoretically the ideal donor may be a healthy young adult who unexpectedly passes, there is no cutoff age. In one case, the liver from a 92-year-old woman extended the life of a 62-year-old woman.
Tissues and organs are screened for infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis before transplantation. If you have a disease that could be passed on, however, you can donate your organs for research and educational purposes.
Timing is crucial once the heart stops beating, but that does not mean that organ donation will interfere in any way with your care.
The medical team handling your end-of-life care is, in fact, separate from the staff involved in the transplant.
Organ transplantation is a major medical advance; each day, approximately 77 Americans receive the gift of extended life through an organ transplant. The full potential of organ transplantation is, however, limited by a lack of donors. More than 100,000 Americans are on the waiting list, and about nine die each day while waiting for an organ transplant.
On the other side, about 12,000 persons who die each year meet criteria for organ donation, while only about 4,000 actually do so.
Do you believe in organ donation? Surveys suggest that 90 percent of Americans do. The process is easy. The reward? Ask someone who has received a transplant.
- - -
Raghu Kasetty, M.D., is medical staff president at OSF St. Francis Hospital & Medical Group