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National Donor Day: Donating organs saves lives

All deaths are tragic. But out of tragedy can come a silver lining. Aliyah Boatwright’s silver lining was receiving a donated heart. When she was just a toddler, doctors found her heart was severely damaged. Without a transplant, she would have died. But, thanks to the generosity of an organ donor, she had a second chance at life. That could be you. Today is National Donor Day. Consider registering.

Nearly 113,000 people are on the national waiting list for organs, and 18 die each day waiting for transplants. While 100 million people in the U.S. have registered as donors, there is a critical need for more to sign up.

“We walk a tight line with this issue,” Mary Ganikos, head of education and outreach at the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Division of Transplantation, said. “One hundred million people have signed up, and that’s a wonderful thing. But only a small portion of people who die each year are medically able to be donors. So we need even more people to sign up to be donors. We don’t want people to think ‘oh, 100 million people are registered, the need is covered.”

Most organ donations come from brain deaths, when the brain stops functioning, perhaps due to stroke or head injury. There are relatively few brain deaths each year. Organs must be oxygenated to be of use, which often happens when a patient is on artificial support.

Anyone is eligible to register as a donor, regardless of age or health. An individual may have a very healthy heart but have lungs that are not appropriate for transplantation. A surgical transplant team will decide which organs, if any, are suitable for transplant.

“We don’t want people to rule themselves out for any reason,” Ganikos said. “I don’t want somebody who is 55 to say ‘I’m too old to be a donor.’ You are never too old. Any age is the right age to sign up to be a donor.”

Unfortunately, there is a drop-off in donor sign-ups after age 50, as people believe they are no longer candidates. In fact, there is no ideal candidate.

Regarding the ideal donor, Ganikos explained, “I don’t want to say someone who is really, really healthy because that is not the case. Your liver may not be very good but your heart may be great … the best donor is someone who signed up and got on the registry.”

Each state has access to a donor registry electronic database. Interested individuals sign up at the DMV or on the Internet and are listed in the database, which can be searched by specific donation professionals. In most states, an individual’s donor status also is displayed on his or her driver’s license.

The important thing to consider, Ganikos said, is that when organs fail, we have a treatment. Through transplant, a potential tragedy is fixable.

“We have a treatment. We can restore them to a fully-functioning person. There are many other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s or advanced cancer, for which treatment options are few … In my book, anybody that dies on the waiting list dies a very needless death, because we do know how to restore that person’s health through organ transplantation,” Ganikos explained.

Kidneys top the list as most in demand, with 80 percent of the waiting list hoping to receive a kidney, usually due to chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

Finding the right match is tricky. First, the blood type has to be compatible. The tissue type must match, and height and weight may also figure in, especially for organs such as lungs and heart that must fit inside the rib cage.

Logistical factors are also important. Some organs can remain outside the body longer and can be transported longer distances. So many factors go into matching an organ that there is a huge demand for people to register.

As compatible blood types are a requirement for donation, there is a particular need for minority communities to step up, as certain ethnicities share similar blood types.

But race is not a factor in matching, and neither is fame or fortune. A computer algorithm keeps things fair. When an organ becomes available, the characteristics of the donor and the patient – height, weight, blood type, tissue typing, severity of illness, time on wait list, geography – are entered into a searchable registry and the best matches are determined.

Ganikos’ advice: “Do it. Just sign up.”

“Talk to your doctor and talk to your family. You can save a lot of lives,” she encouraged. “You can save up to eight lives. You can make a real difference. You can leave a legacy.”

If all organs are usable, eight lives can be saved: two lungs, two kidneys, heart, liver, intestines and pancreas. And various tissues such as bone, veins, heart valves and corneas can be donated and enhance up to 50 lives.

Organ donation does not just aid the transplant recipient, but also allows friends and family to find solace for their grief, knowing their loved one saved lives.

“Most people who have donated a deceased loved one’s organs indicate that it helps them with their grief,” Ganikos declared. “It is helpful because they are able to say that at least something good came out of a tragic situation. They are always eager to tell you ‘another person sees because he has my son’s cornea’ or ‘there’s a little girl living because she has a part of his liver.’”

National Donor Day was started, by Saturn automobile company and its UAW counterpart in the 1990s to promote donation of tissues, organs, blood, cord blood and marrow. From blood drives to providing resources and speakers, the car firm got out there in local communities to spread the word. In recent years, the focus shifted from raising awareness to promoting registry enrollment.

This National Donor Day, consider doing your part. If you want to be an organ, eye, and tissue donor, sign-up on your local donor registry today at www.organdonor.gov.

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LadyLUX via istock, organdonor.gov

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