It may surprise you to learn that one organ donor can save the lives of eight people, and one tissue donor can help 50 others. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 115,000 Americans are currently on the transplant waiting list, and 18 people in the U.S. will die each day waiting for an organ. Signing up to become a donor may not be something that crosses your mind every day, but it is easier than you might think.
Becoming a donor
To become a donor, you must first enroll in your state's donor registry. "The registry is a confidential database of donor designations," says Kaysha Cranon, Public Affairs Coordinator at LifeLink. "If a person wishes to become an organ donor they can designate their decision when they get or renew their driver's license or online at www.donatelifegeorgia.org."
Once you designate your decision on your driver's license, be sure to discuss this with your loved ones so they understand your wishes. They may be asked to serve as your advocate or sign a consent form for your donation to occur. It is also important to note that there is no cost to your family for your organ donation. This cost is always paid by the recipient, usually through insurance, Medicare or Medicaid.
Who can be a donor
"There are essentially two types of organ donors: deceased donors and living donors," explains Dr. Miguel Tan, Surgical Director of Kidney and Pancreas Transplantation at Piedmont Transplant Institute. "When it comes to deceased donors, almost anyone who has irreversible brain injury (or so-called 'brain death') is a potential donor."
In addition to their organs, a deceased donor can donate a number of tissues as well. "Donated tissue includes heart valves, bone, skin, corneas and soft tissue like tendons and ligaments," Cranon says. "Donated heart valves replace damaged ones and allow the heart to function normally. Annually, more than 750,000 lives are helped through tissue transplantation."
Living donors can donate a major organ such as a kidney, as well as blood, bone marrow, stem cells and even umbilical cord blood. "To be a living donor, you need to be in pristine health," says Dr. Carlos Zayas, a transplant surgeon at Piedmont Hospital. "Diabetes, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, a sickle cell trait (which is common in the South), or a BMI higher than 30 are the most common reasons for exclusion."
The requirements for bone marrow donors are similar to those of an organ donor. "People who have HIV or hepatitis are not eligible to donate," says Leslie Kerns, Program Manager of the Bone Marrow Transplant Program at Northside Hospital. "Insulin dependent diabetes, autoimmune disorders or other significant health issues defer you from being a donor. The goal being not to transmit anything that could harm a recipient and also not to cause any increased risk to the donor."
The donation process: What you need to know
"Most patients are afraid to donate because they are fearful of pain, so the first thing to know is that the only organ that living donors can give are kidneys, partial liver transplants or partial lung transplants," Dr. Zayas says. "Organ donation in the U.S. is highly regulated, and donors are put through extensive testing. Donors require more testing than the recipients do to ensure the reliability and function of their organs and that (the donors) will stay healthy for years after transplant."
While some people may fear the financial implications of taking time off from work to donate, many states have enacted laws that provide paid leave for bone marrow and organ donors. "In Georgia, government employees are entitled to 30 days of paid time off to recover," Dr. Zayas says. "You can also deduct up to $10,000 from your income taxes in Georgia if you are an organ donor."
And for people who act on behalf of a deceased donor, they can rest assured that the body of their loved one is treated with respect and dignity throughout the entire donation process. "The donor's appearance following donation still allows for an open-casket funeral," Cranon says. "Once the organ or tissue recovery process is completed, the body is released to the donor's family. From the time the donation process begins, it is usually completed within 24 to 36 hours, and the family may then proceed with funeral arrangements."
Blood & Bone Marrow
According to the American Red Cross, someone needs blood every two seconds in the U.S., and Type O-negative blood is always in high demand because it can be transfused to patients of all blood types. "You must be 18 to 65 years of age to donate blood because you have the best reserve," Dr. Zayas says. "You must be infection free and cancer free, and free of hepatitis B, hepatitis C or active hepatitis A. You cannot have STDs or HIV, and you must have a certain body weight. Anyone with a BMI (body mass index) of less than 20 should not donate."
The blood donation process includes a mini-physical to check your temperature, blood pressure, pulse and hemoglobin to ensure it is safe for you to give blood. Since the average adult has about 10 pints of blood in their body, roughly one pint is given during a donation. The entire process from the time you arrive to the time you leave takes about an hour and 15 minutes.
Bone marrow donation is a bit more complex, but the need for it is just as great. "Only 30 percent of patients who need a donor transplant have access to a fully matched related donor," Kerns says. "The others need to rely on unrelated donors to be able to have access to life saving transplants."
The first step to become a bone marrow donor is joining the Be The Match Registry at www.marrow.org. If a doctor selects you as a match for a patient, you may be asked to donate bone marrow or cells from circulating blood (called Peripheral blood cell – or PBSC - donation). "A good donor for bone marrow is different than a good blood donor," Dr. Zayas says. "You must be between 18 and 50 because stem cells are so important for bone marrow, which decrease after age 50."
PBSC donation involves removing a donor's blood through a sterile needle in one arm. The blood is passed through a machine that separates out the cells used in transplants, and the remaining blood is returned through the other arm. Bone marrow donation, on the other hand, is a surgical procedure in which liquid marrow is withdrawn from the back of the donor's pelvic bones using special, hollow needles. General or regional anesthesia is always used for this procedure, so donors feel no needle injections and no pain during marrow donation.
"The most common solid organ donated by a living person is a kidney," Dr. Tan says. "If there are no potential issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, a donor's outcome after donating a kidney is excellent. The available data indicates that people can live a normal, healthy life with a single kidney, and there is no impact of how long the donor lives."
By becoming a living kidney donor, you will not only increase the supply of quality life-saving organs to those in need, but potentially reduce the costs associated with chronic kidney disease. "An increase in living donation also reduces the number of patients languishing on the waiting list and allows those who do not have living donors to 'move up' the list to potentially reduce their waiting time," he says.
Cord blood is the blood that remains in your newborn's umbilical cord after birth, and according to Cord Blood Registry, it contains valuable stem cells that can be used in a variety of medical treatments, such as regenerating healthy blood and immune cells after chemotherapy. The collection procedure is safe for both mother and baby, usually takes less than five minutes, and can be performed immediately after the birth. But because cord blood stem cells can only be collected at birth, it is important to make your banking decision well before your due date.
"Between June 1 and December 1, 2011, more than 1450 mothers agreed to have their newborn baby's cord blood unit collected," says Dr. Cathy Bonk, Immediate Past Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at DeKalb Medical. "From the units that were collected, 282 units met the standards for clinical-grade units and another 1200 units distributed for research purposes. What's more, three people in the U.S. received stem cell transplants from cord blood units collected during this time period."
The need for minority participation
Because patients are most likely to match with someone of their own ethnicity, adding more diverse donors to the national registry increases the likelihood that all patients will find a life-saving match. Nobody knows this more than Dr. Zayas, who, just two years ago, was also a patient as he battled a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer.
"If you are Hispanic or Latino, there is a smaller pool of people from which they can test for a viable candidate," he says. "In my case, it was nine months before I had a donor. We went to the international registry and found someone in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but he turned out not to be a good match. One of my brothers was a closer match than expected and good enough to go through process. Thank God we did that, because we are so blessed that I am alive."
Today Dr. Zayas is cancer-free, but he continues to devote his time to orchestrating minority group bone marrow drives though local churches and synagogues in Atlanta. He's also spearheaded a public awareness campaign in his native Puerto Rico, and he has even gotten members of his organ transplant team at Piedmont Hospital to sign up with the international registry. "In the bone marrow world, most people will die in 60 to 90 days waiting for a donor," he says. "For every four people to come forward to be considered for bone marrow, only one will agree to do it for a stranger. Most people only want to donate for someone they love."
How your donation can help
Unfortunately the trend in organ donation over the last five years has been less than encouraging. "The rate of donation for both deceased and living donors has either flattened out or decreased, while the waiting list continues to grow at a rate of three to four percent every year," Dr. Tan says. "Organ donation is an important public health issue because of the disparity between the number of patients awaiting transplantation and the number of available donors. Currently, there are approximately 100,000 patients awaiting solid organ transplantation. However, there were only 15,000 donors in 2011 (deceased and living)."
So if organ donation is something you've ever considered, now could be the perfect time to enroll with your state's registry. You never know – someday you could be a silent hero in the life of another person.
American Red Cross – www.redcrossblood.org
Be The Match – www.marrow.org
Cord Blood Registry – www.cordblood.com
DeKalb Medical – www.dekalbmedical.org
Donate Life Georgia – www.donatelifegeorgia.org
Georgia Transplant Foundation – www.gatransplant.org
LifeLink Foundation – www.lifelinkfound.org
Northside Hospital – www.northside.com
Piedmont Hospital – www.piedmonthospital.org
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services – www.organdonor.gov
Real-Life Stories of Donors & Recipients
After being shot during the day trader shooting in 1999, Meredith Forrester needed 115 pints of blood to save her life. Her parents were told that her chance of survival was one in a thousand. Fortunately, the blood she needed was available thanks to generous donations to the American Red Cross. Today, she is the chair of the American Red Cross Southern Blood Services Region board of directors and uses her experience to raise awareness about the importance of blood donation. "I'm extremely grateful to be alive, to have married an amazing man, to have two precious little girls and to have a fulfilling career," she says. "It's so important to give back to the community and to teach my children the importance of doing so." Today Forrester not only organizes blood drives but also donates blood herself. "The Red Cross has made an immeasurable impact on my life. Although nothing was ever asked in return of the 115 pints of blood I received, it truly has been an honor to volunteer with them. There are so many talented, passionate and selfless people there who are committed to the mission; it's inspiring! I hope they never get sick of me, because I plan on volunteering and donating blood until the day I die."
When Dunwoody resident Becky Springer contacted a rare bacterial infection in 2008, the condition became so life-threatening that doctors had to amputate her hands and feet to stop her organs from shutting down. After three months in the hospital and six weeks at a rehabilitation center, she was able to return home to her husband and three young daughters. But her failing kidneys still required weekly dialysis, and in 2009, she was placed on the kidney transplant list at the Piedmont Hospital Transplant Institute. Unfortunately, none of her relatives or friends were suitable donors.
Then Becky met a woman named Amy Otto through her neighborhood book club. Upon hearing Becky's story, Amy volunteered to donate one of her kidneys to her new friend. When doctors determined that Amy was a six point (in other words, perfect) match, she didn't hesitate to undergo the surgery to retrieve one of her kidneys. "I honestly believe God picked her. It was divine intervention," Becky says. "The fact that I found a live kidney donor was unbelievable, and the fact that she was a six point match even more unbelievable."
The transplant was successful, and today Becky no longer requires dialysis. The two women remain close friends, and with the help of their Dunwoody book club, they have organized a fundraiser to benefit the Piedmont Transplant Institute. "Next to giving birth, giving an organ is truly the biggest and greatest gift that you can give to anybody," Becky says. "I often say that I have a beautiful kidney from a beautiful person."
Ashford Jaggernauth of Marietta suffers from Berger disease, a rare kidney disorder that occurs when one of the body's proteins that helps fight infections settles into the kidneys. As a result, he developed total kidney failure. One of his sisters donated her kidney in 1993, but earlier this year, Ashford required another transplant.
He had hoped that his sister who lives in Trinidad would be a match this time, but this wasn't the case. Ashford needed to find another donor quickly, and as luck would have it, he received a kidney just five months later. "Although I haven't met my donor, he is truly an amazing person to donate his organ freely on behalf of someone else," he says. "I am eternally grateful to him and to the doctors who carefully chose him as a match for me."
Ashford became part of what is called a "kidney chain," which starts when an altruistic donor (a healthy person who donates a kidney without a specific person in mind) steps forward. But once the donor's kidney is given to a recipient, that recipient must have a donor willing to give his or her kidney to another stranger. Fortunately Ashford's sister was willing to help, so she flew from Trinidad to donate her kidney to another stranger in Colorado.
"I am deeply indebted to my sister and my donor for their unconditional love in freely giving their kidneys and enduring much pain during their operation, all for my benefit and to allow me another chance to live," Ashford says. "Every time I think about these acts of kindness, I am overwhelmed with the extent of the care and compassion of these precious people."