Former Vice President Dick Cheney is recovering from a heart transplant he received on Saturday, March 24, 2012. According to a report in the New York Times, Cheney had been on the transplant list for 20 months. His surgery took place at the very same hospital in which I received my past two rounds of Rituxan infusions. I wish the very best to Cheney and the family of the heart donor.
For two centuries, blood, bone, organ, and tissue donations have saved and improved lives. During the twentieth century, the science of organ and tissue transplantation become sophisticated. However, there are still on average 18 people who die each day waiting for an organ. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), a private, non-profit organization contracted by the federal government, there are 113,620 candidates on the wait list for organ transplants as of noon today. (One less than late last evening.)
Who can be an organ donor?
Anyone, regardless of age or medical history, can sign up to be a donor, however anyone younger than 18 must have the consent of a parent or guardian. Do not assume that your age or medical history will exclude you from becoming a donor.
To be a living donor, you cannot have high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, HIV, hepatitis, kidney disease, or heart disease. Living donor candidates should be in good physical and mental health and at least 18 years old.
For donation after death, a medical assessment will be conducted to determine which, if any, of your organs can be donated. If you have HIV, actively spreading cancer, or evidence of a severe infection, your organs would be excluded from consideration.
What can be donated upon my death?
Organs which are commonly donated after death include: kidney, pancreas, kidney/pancreas combination, heart, lung, heart/lung combination, liver, and intestines. To ensure viability of the donated organs, blood and oxygen must continue to flow through the body until the time that the organs are recovered for transplantation. For this to occur a person must suffer irreparable neurological injury, ie. brain death, often following massive trauma to the brain such as stroke, aneurysm, or automobile accident. One person’s organ donation can save the lives of up to eight other individuals.
Additional bodily tissues which can be donated include: bone, skin, corneas, tendons and ligaments, cartilage, arteries and veins, and heart valves. According to the Coalition on Donation and the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, an individual donor can make possible more than 100 tissue transplants. “In 1998, donated tissues from one volunteer firefighter were transplanted into 422 people.”
Can I donate while I’m still living?
We discussed the importance of blood donations in January. Give a pint and save a life. But did you realize that you can donate other tissue and organs while you are still alive?
Bone marrow can used to treat diseases including various leukemias and lymphomas, multiple myeloma, severe aplastic anemia, Sickle cell disease, and many other disorders. However, you must meet stringent medical guidelines in order to register to become a bone marrow donor. Many readers of this article will NOT BE ALLOWED to donate bone marrow because they live with autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis.
Living donor transplants can be a viable alternative for patients who need new organs. Types of organs which can be supplied by living donors include: kidney, liver, lung, intestine, pancreas, and heart. Living donor candidates should be in good physical and mental health, free from serious disease (such as cancer, HIV, hepatitis, diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, and high blood pressure), and at least 18 years old. Not only that, but you must undergo a great deal of medical testing.
Kidney donation is the most frequent type of living organ donation. Persons who donate a kidney can expect to experience a decrease in their kidney function. Individuals can donate a segment of their liver, which has the ability to regenerate itself and regain full function. Individuals can donate a lobe of one lung or even a portion of their pancreas. Although rare, it is possible to donate a portion of your intestines. Extraordinarily rare, a person receiving a heart-lung transplant may be able to donate their healthy heart if it is determined that the deceased donor lungs will function best if they are used in conjunction with the deceased donor heart.
How do I become an organ or tissue donor?
Criteria for donation are constantly changing and with the advances in transplantation science, more people than ever can be donors. According to Donate Life America, 90% of Americans say they support donation, but only 30% know the essential steps to take to be a donor.
To become an organ or tissue donor is easy. You can indicate your wishes in the following ways:
- Register with your state’s donor registry. Each state has a registry which can be found at OrganDonor.gov .
- Check the donor box on your driver’s license or identification card. When you obtain or review your license, inform the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) you are an organ donor.
- Sign and carry a donor card in your wallet.
- Tell your family and/or health care proxy that you want to be an organ donor.
Hospitals will seek to obtain consent from the next of kin when organ donation is an option. If you are registered with your state’s donor registry, family consent is not necessary. However, the family will be asked to provide a medical and social history of the potential donor.
Can I donate my organs if I have RA?
This was the original question I wanted to answer in researching for this article. However, I discovered that it is not so easy to find a definitive answer. When I spoke with Jenna at Donate Life Virginia, she said, "Each state, each organization, each transplant center have different criteria. So even if you aren’t a good candidate to donate for transplantation, you could donate to research."
Very true. A number of research centers are seeking tissue donations from people who have rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis. I plan to discuss this topic further in a future post.
For more information regarding organ donation, visit:
Organdonor.gov Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network
United Network for Organ Sharing
The Gift of a Lifetime or more than 41 national organizations related to donation and transplantation
To learn more about blood, organ, and tissue donation, read these posts:
(more posts to come)
Lisa Emrich is a patient advocate, accomplished speaker, author of the award-winning blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA, and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa uses her experience to educate patients, raise disease awareness, encourage self-advocacy, and support patient-centered research. Lisa frequently works with non-profit organizations and has brought the patient voice to health care conferences and meetings worldwide. Follow Lisa on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.