Lifesavers: Stories of Organ Donation

Checking that organ donor box on your driver's license may feel like an abstract decision. In fact, it's anything but. Just ask these four women.
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Lifesavers

Kerry Hutchins had battled cystic fibrosis since birth but last year, when the 33-year-old mom from Sparta, Michigan, took a turn for the worse, she was moved to the top of the waiting list to receive a double-lung transplant. It was her only hope of living long enough to see her sons, Cordell, then 13, and Aiden, 4, graduate from high school.

Hutchins waited in vain. Her heartbreaking plea -- shown on local TV as well as the Internet -- touched the thousands who saw it and more than tripled the monthly tally of people who usually register as organ donors in her county. (See the video here.) But she died before a match could be found. "We never wished anyone would die so Kerry could have lungs," says her father, George Roby. "But sadly, people do die before their time, and we hoped and prayed a match would arrive to save her life."

Hutchins's case exemplifies the current crisis in organ transplantation: Demand far outstrips supply. A name is added to the national organ transplant waiting list every 10 minutes. And every day 18 people on that list die because no organ can be found in time. The list recently reached a historic high of more than 110,000 names. At the same time the number of available organs (both from living and deceased donors) has increased only modestly.

Why the widening gap? Experts aren't sure. Potential living donors (of kidneys and livers) may worry that insurance won't cover expenses, that they'll lose income while recovering from surgery, or that they'll run into insurability issues later on. Fear, too, plays an undeniable role, especially after the widely publicized case last year of Ryan Arnold, a South Dakota orthodontist who died after surgery to remove part of his liver to donate to his brother. (Experts point out that such deaths are exceedingly rare.) With deceased organ donation, the problem likely stems from a lack of awareness. But the biggest factor may be the success of transplant surgery itself: Advances in surgical techniques and the drugs prescribed to prevent organ rejection allow more and more doctors to recommend transplants for gravely ill patients, thus fueling demand.

Another calamity can be blamed on the recession: Last October Arizona stopped paying for seven types of transplants, and other cash-strapped states may soon follow. Since Medicaid funding was cut off, two Arizona patients in desperate need of transplants have died. The organ shortage has also ushered in potential changes in transplant policy. In February the national network that arranges transplants, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), outlined a possible new system for transplants of kidneys (the most commonly transplanted organ) that would age-match donors and recipients. Under such a system a younger organ would go only to a younger patient, regardless of how long another, older patient had been on the waiting list.

Amid these sobering medical realities, however, there are millions of success stories -- people whose lives have been saved and completely transformed by organ transplants. For anyone needing proof that the gift of an organ is the gift of life, consider the dramatic turnarounds of these women.

Continued on page 2:  A Beat Goes On

 

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