Never too old for organ donation: April National Gift of Life Month

By DEBBIE BURKE

Miranda Denison of Kalispell, Montana is one of six people from Montana with her unusual job. His urgent missions require driving throughout the state. The outward leg of his journey is to a place touched by tragedy and loss, but the return journey leads to hope and joy.

Denison’s job? She recovers the corneas of people who have just died. The dime-sized see-through fabric is the window into the eye.

“It’s like a miracle,” said a woman who lives outside Bozeman. (She wishes to remain anonymous.) At 35, she received the first of several corneal transplants. Now 83, she says, “I’m lucky to have good eyes to see my children and grandchildren.

April is National Gift of Life Month, raising awareness of the importance of organ, eye and tissue donation.

Miranda works for SightLife, a non-profit eye bank headquartered in Seattle, Washington. After retrieving and carefully packing the tissue in a preservation medium, it is airlifted to a laboratory. There he is medically assessed and prepped before being sent to eye surgeons throughout the Northwest and beyond, with a 90% transplant success rate.

Hurry up. To be viable for transplantation, corneas must be retrieved within 12-24 hours of death (once in preservative solution, they remain usable for up to 14 days). Heart and lung donations only take four to six hours; livers are eight to 12 o’clock; the pancreas is 12 to 18 o’clock; the kidneys are 24-36 hours.

SightLife holds regular meetings to share experiences with donor families, cornea recipients and others who make donation possible, including healthcare providers, funeral directors, coroners and physicians lawyers.

During a Zoom meeting in November 2021, Pennsylvania TV personality Chris Bohinski spoke eloquently about donating his mother’s corneas. He doesn’t know who received his, but he describes feeling “strangely, remarkably familiar” when he meets another transplant recipient. “We were friends,” he says, “with the common thread of the eyes connecting us.”

Bohinski’s mother was a nurse who died of cancer. He admits he and his siblings were “frightened” when they first received a phone call from SightLife asking if they were willing to donate their mother’s corneas. Because of her long tradition of helping, they decided she would want someone else to benefit from her passing. In retrospect, their initial short-term concerns about her appearance in the coffin (donation does not affect appearance) were far outweighed by the realization of the long-term benefits for someone who can now see.

Sam Gonzalez, 19, a self-described cowboy from Texas, remembers going to the DMV with his mother for his first driver’s license. The form asked if he wanted to be an organ donor. Unsurprisingly, the young man’s main concern was getting his license, but his mum advised him to tick the box. Little did he know then that he himself would soon need a corneal transplant.

An accident changed Gonzales’ life “literally in the blink of an eye”, leaving him blind in one eye, deeply depressed and wondering how to cope with the rest of his life. Then he learned that a donor cornea was available. He later learned it came from a 59-year-old man in Seattle. After the surgery, Gonzales said, “He sees life through a 19-year-old from South Texas. He lives again and gives me the chance to live again.

To the donor’s family, he says, “Thank you for coming in peace with the pain.

This bittersweet theme echoes the experience of most donor families. The grief of losing a loved one is tempered by the knowledge that another’s life will be transformed. The worst day for one family may be the best day for another.

Organ donation has a gross factor that puts some people off. Bohinski suggests that one way to get used to the idea is to donate blood. When people see how it saves other people’s lives, they feel more comfortable with the concept.

Age is a common concern. People often think, “I’m too old to donate.

Not necessarily.

According to Organdonor.gov, there is no age limit, although individual programs may have restrictions. The oldest recorded organ donor was Carleton, 92, whose liver saved the life of a 69-year-old woman. Cornea donation can occur at almost any age.

The elderly are often the recipients of organ donations. In 2019, 63% of beneficiaries were over 50; 21% were 65 and over.

In 2019, one in three donors was over 50 years old.

The demand for most organs exceeds the supply. Even though organ donation has increased by 38% over the past five years, the average wait time for a kidney remains three to five years. In the United States, more than 108,000 people are currently on waiting lists for organ donations.

Organs, corneas, stem cells, bones, bone marrow and tissues can all be donated. Tissue donations help burn victims, replace heart valves and repair damaged ligaments and tendons. Organdonor.gov estimates that one donor can save up to eight lives and improve the lives of 75 recipients.

The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) is a federally contracted nonprofit system that coordinates organ donation. According to UNOS, when an organ becomes available, screening is required.

First, they must weed out candidates who don’t match the donor’s blood type, height, weight, or other medical factors. When the donor and recipient are of the same ethnicity or race, the success rate is higher.

Distance is also a factor to consider. The closer, the better, because the time between healing and transplant is crucial.

The size of the organ matters. Children do best with child-sized organs.

In 2021, UNOS predicted donations would reach 40,000.

Denison says: “When I retrieve a cornea, another person will now be able to see. It makes me appreciate my work because I help improve people’s lives. It’s a good feeling. ISI


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