With a mortician for a father, I grew up exposed to a more graphic and grim side of life than most. While my friends spend spring break on the beach, I helped my father with his business embalming bodies and helping families part with their loved ones. My experiences working in the funeral home also exposed me to a unique perspective on aspects of death many take for granted. However, the most striking is organ donation and transplantation.
My first experience with organ donation revolved around the body of a middle-aged, organ-donating man, sent to my father from a local hospital. US Law requires that families identify a body once it has been received by a funeral home, and since the doctors had taken his eyes, all of the bones in his legs, and large portions of skin from the thighs and calves, my father knew that this was no way for a family to see their loved one. He spent the following twelve hours rebuilding the mans legs with PVC piping, sewing sutures all the way up both of the man’s legs, and prepping the man’s face to hide his missing eyes.
Grey’s Anatomy, ER, and other medical TV dramas make transplanting organs from one person into another look like a seamless process, but it is actually a mind-boggling, extremely complex, and not always reliable. Living donors can donate a kidney, portions of the liver, lung, intestines, and sometimes eyes and tissues. Deceased donors can provide kidneys, the pancreas, liver, lungs, the heart, intestines, and other tissues such as bone, skin, heart valves, veins, and corneas. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, in 2012, 28,051 people received organ transplants. 21% of these people received transplants from live donors, while the other 79% were recipients from deceased donors.
Although these numbers sound good, it is still not good enough. Currently, 122,905 people in the United States are waiting for an organ transplant that could save their life. Each day in the US, an average of 79 people receive organs, and 18 people die waiting for transplants. Numerous challenges including matching recipients with donors, the small supply of viable organs, and long distances between possible candidates, prevent patients from receiving the necessary organs. However, one of the biggest challenges remains to be time.
Organs do not last for a long time outside of our bodies. As long as organ transplantation has been available, we have relied on traditional ice coolers to preserve organs by slowing the rate of cell death and reducing the metabolic demands of the cells. This technique can only preserve the organs for up to six hours, because rapid cell death occurs when there is no circulation delivering necessary oxygen and nutrients. Not to mention, carrying organs in coolers can also lead to physical damage; remember how jumbled your bagged lunch would get back in school? Since time is precious, these factors also prevent physicians from testing if organs are functional before transplanting into the recipients.
What if time was less of a concern?
In 1998, an American company called TransMedics Inc. made it their goal to improve the way we transport organs. The creation of the Organ Care System allowed for organs to be tested for function, transported safely, and provided an extra six hours for organs to travel. The organ being donated is hooked up to the system, and the donors blood is pumped through it. The system is currently available for transporting the lungs and the heart, with clinical trials in the US still being performed.
Although I shared a more gruesome story of what I had been exposed to concerning organ donation, those organs the young man was able to provide could have saved the life of another. We all walk through life, usually avoiding the gory details, but these details need to be taken seriously. When you go to register for your license for the first time, a simple yes or no checkbox summarizes a complex question. Being an organ donor is an important decision that deserves your time to consider. Are we aware that our bodies are at the doctor’s disposal? Are we thinking about our families, and what they might want for us in the end instead? Educate yourself, and do what is best for you and your organs.