The season of gift-giving is upon us. You may be racking your brain for cheap but fabulous gift ideas, while dogged by worries about rising costs and impending recession. Have I got an idea for you: register to be an organ donor (not kidding!). It is highly unlikely you will ever be in a position to donate your organs, but if you were the victim of a terrible accident, wouldn’t it be some consolation to know that your precious body could offer new life to eight other human beings?
In the last four decades, organ transplant has moved from “moon shot” to an everyday medical miracle. This year we reached a major milestone: There have been one million organ transplants in the United States.
But some aspects of organ donation remain confounding. For example, while a heart transplant from a female donor to a male recipient and vice versa can be done, they have a higher mortality rate than for same-sex donor to recipient. The only organ that cannot be transplanted (yet) is the brain due to the complexity of the connection to the spinal cord and the many nerves involved.
Every year, 46,000 people die in car crashes in this country, a chief source of organs that can be used for transplants. Yet the need still far outstrips availability — there are many more people waiting for a heart, lungs or a liver than organs available from tragic accidents. Every year 6,000 people die while waiting for an organ.
Thankfully, we’ve come up with an effective mechanism for gathering and allocating these invaluable body parts to people in need. It’s called UNOS, short for United Network for Organ Sharing and you may have first learned about it on “Grey’s Anatomy” or “E.R.”
There’s a very good reason we don’t offer to pay people to register as organ donors, just as there are prohibitions against buying or selling organs, generally because the only people considering such desperate measures are poor and vulnerable and may conceal information that could damage their health or the health of the recipient (previous illnesses, exposure to toxins) in the interest of getting the cash.
If registration was more common, we wouldn’t have thousands of people dying every year from the lack of a healthy liver or heart, or lung — while tens of thousands of healthy organs are buried each year as people, who never thought to register as organ donors, fall victim to accidents they never anticipated. It is a gift that costs nothing yet may be the most magnificent, lasting gesture of generosity in a person’s life, cut short too soon.
So we need to come up with clever ways to get people to register. If you’re reading this article online, you can click this link and register in about a minute.
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The rate of organ donation in our Empire State is catastrophically low at just 20%, despite Gov. Cuomo signing a law in 2017 to simplify registration. It is now an option for anyone getting or renewing a driver’s license, registering to vote, or applying for health insurance.
New York State has the third lowest rate of organ donation in the country — followed by Texas (17%), and Vermont (5%). This is especially sad since our state is one of the neediest for transplantable organs. (Yay for Montana where 82% of the adult population are registered organ donors!)
There’s a race-against-the-clock aspect to organ donation. For example, a heart must be transplanted within four hours, which is why registries are geographically specific. (And why rich people who can afford to travel to a less geographically dense region often get transplants more quickly).
Some countries like France, Spain and Norway, are “opt-out” — that is, you’re presumed to be an organ donor unless you take action to declare yourself unwilling. And, contrary to popular belief, there are no religions that prohibit organ donation or transplant.
Registration to be an organ donor in case of unexpected death is an easy thing to do. A much greater gift is to consider becoming a living donor, which means donating one of your kidneys or part of your liver — the only organ in your body that can regrow itself. It’s another fascinating fact that both the donor’s remaining liver and the recipient’s partial liver will regrow within weeks to full size.
Would you please consider registering to be an organ donor? You may do it in the name of someone you love whom you hope will never be in need of this life-saving intervention. Imagine how you would feel if your beloved child or parent was in desperate need of an organ. It takes less than a minute to sign up for New York State’s Organ Donor Registry.
Schenck is a filmmaker and writer, currently writing for Montefiore Einstein’s transplant program.