Thousands await new organs; how the system works

Every day, an average of 17 people die because of a lack of available organs for transplant.

As of Feb. 8, there were 105,102 people across the nation waiting for organ transplants. Of those, 373 were from Kansas.

“There is a much lower rate of organ donation in the U.S. compared to other countries,” said Dr. Ramsey Hachem, pulmonologist at Barnes Jewish Hospital, a world-renowned transplant center in St. Louis.

To become a donor, it’s essential to notify your family.

“The most important thing, really, is to talk to your family about the donation because even when you put it on your driver’s license, at the time of death, someone is going to talk to your next of kin to make sure that it is OK for that donation to happen,” said Jan Finn, chief operations officer for the Midwest Transplant Network. “So it is really critical that your loved ones know.”

The network is the federally certified Organ Procurement Organization for Kansas and the western half of Missouri. It is responsible for taking all of the calls or referrals of patients when they die in a hospital and screening them to determine whether they are eligible to donate. It also is responsible for recovering the organs and tissues and finding appropriate matches.

Finn said patients in need of organs are listed through a transplant center. There are two in Kansas: Via Christi St. Francis Hospital in Wichita and Kansas University Hospital in Kansas City, Kan.

Those patients are then put into a national network that produces a priority list of potential organ recipients based on criteria that include blood type, tissue type, size of organ, medical urgency of patient, time on the waiting list, and distance between donor and recipient.

According to United Network for Organ Sharing, often the top-ranked patient may not get an organ for one of several reasons, including:

¢ He or she can’t be located or can’t reach the hospital in time for a transplant.

¢ He or she is temporarily too sick to receive a transplant.

¢ The medical team believes the organ would not benefit the candidate due to the donor’s age or medical condition.

¢ Medical tests performed after the initial offer show the candidate’s immune system likely would reject the organ.

In 2007, the Midwest Transplant Network had 195 organ donors and close to 600 transplants from those donors. It also had about 700 tissue donors.

Tissue donations include items such as corneas, skin, bones and connective tissue. Lawrence Memorial Hospital was recognized by Midwest Transplant Network for its donation rate – 55 percent of those eligible donated, which is higher than the national goal of 35 percent.

“We are required by law to report each death to Midwest Transplant Network for screening for possible tissue donation,” said Melynda Swoyer, clinical educator for the Intensive Care Unit and Cardiovascular Services at LMH.

If the deceased does qualify for a donation, Swoyer said LMH has a team of about 20 people who are trained to approach families.

“We try to educate the families and offer them that opportunity for tissue donation and it’s totally up to them,” she said. “If the family either wishes for that patient to be a donor or declines that, we respect that.”

LMH will have an open house April 29 when people can learn more about tissue and organ donation.