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Discovering the importance of organ donation

by Sue Lanza

Medical emergencies and chronic conditions often share a common thread, the "if only" syndrome. If only a cornea was available for transplant for the victim of a freak accident or if only bone marrow tissue could be found for the person with a rare form of cancer. The life-giving concept of organ and tissue donation can often transform "if only" into a reality for thousands of individuals every year. So what are the myths and facts about this special medical intervention that keeps on providing?

It's that chilling call you hope to never receive where you are directed to a hospital to find your family member in serious condition from an accident. In my case, I rushed to find my daughter with a mangled arm and significant missing tissue but I had to switch on my "mom face" so my daughter wouldn't see my fright. My mind was racin - would she lose her arm? Skin graft? Blood transfusion? How would we patch her up?

This dilemma is faced daily by thousands of individuals where a medical condition or injury requires a body part donation for the person to become whole or well again. These donations could be a replacement organ such as the liver, heart, lungs, intestine, kidneys, tissue, blood or stem cells.

Sadly, the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network estimates that over 100,000 people are waiting for some type of organ or tissue donation at any time. So how do we educate people about the importance of organ and tissue donation? The easiest way is to debunk the myths.

Facts & Myths About Organ Donation

1. Myth: "My daughter says I am too old to give my organs".

Fact: The website encourages all individuals to think of themselves as possible tissue and organ donors since there are no firm age limits. Believe it or not, infants as well as elderly persons have acted as donors.

2. Myth: "I have a medical condition so I can't possible help".

Fact: Every person who wishes to donate goes through a screening and evaluation. Don't rule yourself out just yet. Let the team review your situation and consider your general health, the kind of organs or tissues that you might donate and the type of medical problems you have had.

3. Myth: "I would be glad to make a contribution but I think my religion prohibits it".

Fact: It is possible that your particular religion does not approve but most groups do endorse organ donation as a voluntary act of kindness. The website also has an extensive list of different religious organizations and their views on organ and tissue donation.

4. Myth: "I wish I could do something now while I'm alive but the program is for donations after death"

Fact: The program supports contributions from living donors as well as those in three other categories: donation after cardiac death, donation after brain death and a whole body donation upon death. Living donors have more to consider in terms of their own future health than those who bequeath their organs after death.

5. Myth: "I need a new heart and I heard that there is a ten year waiting list so what is the point?"

Fact: There are estimated waiting times for certain organs but these change constantly as the pool of donors and recipients get matched. For example, the typical waiting time for a heart is 230 days or less than a year. By contrast, an average delay for a kidney or for lungs is about three years. Getting on a national waiting list involves a few steps starting with a referral from a physician and obtaining an evaluation and recommendation from a team at a transplant hospital.

6. Myth: "My doctor says I will be approved but I can't afford this".

Fact: Costs for transplants can be very costly but some health insurances may cover some of the costs. Other options include use of Medicare and Medicaid funding where appropriate. The transplant team includes a financial counselor who will be sure these matters are discussed and resolved up front".

7. Myth: "I was told that you can only donate when you get your first driver's license, so it's too late for me".

Fact: You can make plans to be an organ or tissue donor anytime! Here are the simple steps: register with your state's donor registry, place your donor decision on your driver's license when you renew, sign a donor card to carry in your wallet and tell your loved ones of your decision.

You can see that there is a great system in place, but the waiting list is always larger than the donors available. And how did my daughter's accident resolve? Thankfully, her arm was able to be restored to full functioning with grafts of her own skin. But on that day I realized the importance of becoming a donor and signed up immediately. Won't you join me and save a life or two?