By Sara Rider
Each of us has the ability to make a dramatic difference in the lives of others by becoming an organ donor. For people who are on waiting lists for organ transplants, need new corneas to restore their vision or skin grafts to help them overcome burns and injuries, the good we can do is truly amazing. The problem is that despite all the good that is possible, there are not enough organs being donated.
“There is a critical shortage in organ donation,” says Michelle Segovia, senior public relations coordinator for the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance (TOSA). “There are 120,000 men, women and children awaiting transplant nationwide, and 11,000 of them are in Texas.”
According to Segovia, in addition to hearts and kidneys, which are often what the public thinks of when it thinks of organ donation, there are other organs that can be donated as well. “The organs needed for transplants are heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, pancreas and small intestine,” she continues. “And if you want to talk about tissue donation, there are a whole lot of other things that can be donated as well, including skin, bone, heart, valves and corneas.”
Making the grade
The criteria for the donation by a deceased donor are particularly stringent. (The kidney is the only organ that can be donated by a living donor.)
“To be an organ donor, people must die in a hospital, be brain dead and be on a ventilator,” explains Segvoia. “We could be talking about someone who is the victim of a traumatic brain injury, traffic accident victims or someone who has had an aneurysm or stroke. But less than two percent of the people that die in hospitals die in a way that allows them to actually be eligible organ donors.” And that’s not good news for people who are waiting for a donation that can truly save their lives.
Ahead of their time
Nationally, organ donation is governed by the National Organ Transplant Act, which passed in 1984, explains Dr. Richard Lewis, surgical director of the Kidney Transplant Center at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center (NAMC). The country is divided into 11 administrative regions and then into Donor Service Areas (DSAs). Texas has three DSAs, and Austin falls into the DSA administered by the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance.
But before there were national laws and DSAs, the Austin medical community had already taken steps to bring organ donation to central Texas.
“The first kidney transplant was done in Austin in 1972, which is really a remarkable achievement because doctors around the world didn’t really start doing them in substantive numbers until the 1960s,” says Dr. Lewis. “A group of doctors and nurses set up a program here.” The program was based at Brackenridge Hospital and involved physicians including Jack Moncrief, Jim Lindley and Gerald Beathard, Dr. Lewis states.
“There was a vascular surgery group, a urology group and a group of dedicated nurses and administrators, including Bob Spurck, who was the administrator at Brackenridge at that time,” continues Dr. Lewis. “It’s an extraordinary history.
According to Dr. Lewis, by 1986, 486 kidney transplants had been done in Austin. That same year, Seton Medical Center began performing heart transplants. Since that time, the Seton program has transplanted close to 300 hearts, according to the Seton website.
Dr. Ernest Haeusslein is one of the people performing transplants at Seton. “I’ve been doing transplantation for over 22 years, and the changes I’ve seen are amazing,” he says.
“In the early days, the survival rate for heart transplant was about 50 percent and was measured at about a week. Nowdays, it’s almost 11 years of survival and 50 percent of heart transplant patients make it over 10 years.”
According to Dr. Haeusslein, 14 heart transplants were performed at Seton in 2013. “It’s an incredible gift and it has an incredible impact on others.”
Simple steps change lives
According to Segovia of TOSA, signing up to be an organ donor is a very simple process.
“Anyone who lives in Texas can designate their wish to be an organ donor at donatelifetexas.org or you can do it when you renew your license at DPS. It’s a legal and binding document that takes the burden off the family if their loved one is already a registered donor.”
Segovia says that by the end of September 2013, 822 people in Austin had donated, with 354 of those donations coming from living donors who donated a kidney.
“Living donors are typically family members,” says Lauren Rutledge, administrative director of the Kidney Transplant Center at St. David’s NAMC. “Living donors can be friends, or they can be what we call a ‘non-directed donor,’ who could be someone who just feels the need to give and the donation is not directed to one specific person.”
Rutledge states that the transplant center at NAMC recently had its 500th donation. “The biggest thing is that people in Austin need to sign up to be a registered donor,” continues Rutledge. “It’s very easy to do and the number of lives it touches is phenomenal.”
“To put it bluntly,” adds Dr. Haeusslein, “the organs really aren’t going to do you any good if you’re brain dead. There’s no great benefit to burying your organs. People who are suffering can benefit greatly from organ donation and I think in some cases it helps the family deal with the loss, because in some way their loved one is living on.”
Haeusslein tells the story of a woman who went into heart failure during childbirth: “She was separated from her daughter literally one day after birth and ended up getting a heart transplant. Each year, she and her husband would bring their daughter back when they came for their annual visit. And one day I walked in and there was a young woman there I didn’t recognize. The daughter was now 21 years old. So her mom had survived to watch her grow to 21 because she had a transplant. For me, that was what it was all about, trying to help people live normal lives. And to grow old. Everyone wants to grow old and be happy and healthy, and transplantation helps them do that.”