The Search For Hope

Doctors perform surgery, on texture, partial graphic 1999/11/29 #753565: AP

The case of Jesica Santillan - the 17-year-old who was given organs with the wrong blood type for a heart and lung transplant, and who died after a second transplant - has put the spotlight back on the issue of organ donation.

Medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains on The Early Show that there is a major shortage of available organs, which has grown considerably worse over the years.

Over 80,000 Americans are on the wait list for a new heart, liver, kidney or other organs. And every day, an average of 13 people on that wait list die because of a lack of donors.

Dr. Senay says despite medical resources and technology, this remains a huge problem. She says there would be no organ shortage in this country if every person who died and was suitable for a transplant donated their organ. Of course this does not happen and so suitable organs are not used in this way.

Dr. Senay says some people don't become donors because of religious reasons. Others mistrust doctors, and others, in a traumatic situation, may not be able to make that kind of a decision.

There are calls to change the current system for organ donation. Dr. Senay says one idea being discussed in Congress is offering some kind of financial incentive for donations. There has been much debate on that question, specifically, by medical ethicists, and generally people agree that paying for organs would be a slippery slope. Dr. Senay says a more acceptable option is to pay for the funeral of a donor, medical expenses, or a donation to their favorite charity - all within a reasonable range.

Another possible way to ameliorate the problem is to have everyone be considered a potential donor unless specifically ask to not be. Spain and some other European countries follow this policy.

Dr. Senay says there hasn't been organ donations improvements because transplants have become much more commonplace over the past decade and more hospitals around the country perform the surgeries. Also, anti-rejection drugs that recipients must take have become much better.

Some may think that signing the back of driver licenses for organ donation consent is enough to donate. But Dr. Senay says most state still need a next of kin consent.

To guarantee that your organs are donated you should have a discussion with your family. Most of us don't really look forward to talking about our own mortality, and generally organ donor cases from cadavers are a result of a car accident or another kind of sudden trauma. If you're not comfortable talking about it, in addition to the information on your driver's license, on the UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) website, you can download a family card, which clearly states your wishes to your next of kin.

Sometimes family can designate that their loved one's organs to go to a family member. Dr. Senay says it is a rare occurrence that almost always occurs between family members. A "directed donation" can also be done between strangers. But it is not common.

According to UNOS, 2001 was the first year when living donors exceeded the number of cadaver donors. But, Dr. Senay says, it shows how great the need is for donors. Living donor transplants are complicated and involve invasive surgery. However, if a cadaver donor isn't available, it's natural to attempt living donation to save a loved one.

Some have worried that the donation policy gave preferential treatments to the rich and famous. Dr. Senay says a new system was put in place in the last year or so by UNOS and the Department of Health and Human Services, which has made it more difficult to get preferential treatment. Under the new rules, the sickest patients automatically go to the top of the list so that kind of situation is far less likely.

  • Rome Neal

Comments