As Americans are living longer than ever, many elderly would-be organ donors are unable to donate upon their death, according to analysis from executives of Gift of Hope, an organ donation organization in Illinois.
As Gift of Hope does not accept organs from those older than 85, with certain cancers, HIV or hepatitis B, many in need of multiple organs are struggling to get them. Although the number of living donors has remained steady over time, the number of donors actually able to donate is shrinking. Therefore, an average 65-year-old in need of a liver and kidney waits much longer for those organs.
“What we’re seeing is more people becoming sicker and getting less health care,” Eric Price, a donation specialist with Gift of Hope told LMM. “Because there is a static number of people donating, there are less organs coming from them.” Price also noted an increase in diabetes and cancer in would-be donors.
The biggest obstacle donation specialists face is finding the best time to request organs from grieving families. Specialists typically make this inquiry in the delicate moments before or after a potential donor’s death.
“There is no good time to ask this question,” Price said. “Families don’t want us coming to them in the hospital asking for their loved one’s organs.” But hospitals have an obligation to notify Gift of Hope of every pending death within a facility, or the institution risks losing Medicare reimbursements. If the individual on the verge of death meets the specifications of Gift of Hope, a donation specialist heads to the hospital immediately.
Sometimes, families are reluctant to donate because they hold out hope for a recovery, Price said. Poor doctor-family communication is another reason why more are not organ donors. “So many doctors do a horrible job of explaining death to families in general, but especially brain death,” Price explained. “I’ve been yelled at and even swung at once when speaking to a family about donating their loved one’s organs.”
A sense of urgency pervades organizations like Gift of Hope. There exists a small time period in which vital organs can be harvested, because they require oxygen and nutrients to survive. It is also difficult to find donors, as only two percent of deaths are eligible for donation. An eligible donor must have died a “brain death” within a hospital (like from a stroke) or the patient’s family has decided to withdraw life-saving support.
Deaths in hospice facilities or at home do not qualify, because organs cannot be harvested if not ventilated properly.
Meanwhile, the transplant waiting list keeps growing. A patient awaiting a kidney transplant in Illinois typically receives one after about five years. There are more than 5,000 people waiting for organs in Illinois. Nationally, that number is more than 100,000.
Gift of Hope executives acknowledge the emotional nature of their work and urge families to think of the positives of organ donation.
“After a family donates, we keep in touch with them,” said Karen Cameron, the Clinical Training Coordinator at Gift of Hope. They connect willing organ recipients and the donor’s family “to help show them the impact of their gift.”
More than five million people have signed up to be donors in Illinois, and more than 70 percent of those whom Gift of Hope approach agree to donation.
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