Here’s my handsome son, Alex, who joined my son-in-law and me on a hiking trip to the Great Smokey Mountains this past summer. Read to the end of this post for a story about Alex and the Organ Donor Card.
Probably one of the most consistent questions I get asked after “How ya doin'” is “Why don’t you just get a liver transplant?”
On its own, isn’t it amazing people think of organ transplants as an everyday fact of life. Medical science has made amazing advancements in recent decades. Can you recall the first heart transplant in 1967 by South African Dr. Christiaan Barnard? As a thirteen year old I was amazed at both the science and by people’s reaction to transplanting what was considered the most sacred human organ. Today, organ transplants retain their breathtaking mystery but are readily seen as another medical solution.
Liver transplants are complicated procedures involving operations taking up to 12 hours. The critical organ which is the size of a half of a football presents a unique difference from other organs as the liver is the only major organ that can regenerate itself. This presents the patient the option of receiving either a transplanted organ from a brain-dead person or receiving a partial liver transplant from a living donor. While the latter presents many risks to be weighed by both the donor and the donee, for each person the partial liver will re-grow to its original size.
There are currently 16,000 people on the waiting list for a donated liver. In 2008, 6318 liver transplants were performed. As there are not enough donated livers to go around a national scoring system was created which takes in to consideration a patient’s condition, blood type, age, support system, and his or her likelihood of surviving the next 90 days without a transplant. Obviously, with a three-month window of life as a criteria, a person has to be in bad shape to hope to get moved up the list. One out of ten people die on the waiting list. People with advancing liver issues but still fully functional like me are a long way from getting on a liver transplant list, however, we continue to monitor issue with an increased interest in organ donor programs.
I recall reading an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch about six years ago which detailed the numbers game of liver donation in the St. Louis area. The story detailed the logistics of getting a candidate liver to an actual recipient in a St. Louis hospital. The screens started filtering by the odds of first finding a person who is brain-dead but living after, most likely, an auto accident. The next screen is if this person had previously designated to be an organ donor. Then the funnel of potential livers significantly reduces with being able to get that person’s body to a donation hospital soon enough to be still alive yet brain-dead in order to remain a viable donor. (A person awaiting a liver transplant has already agreed to reside within a limited number of hours of the transplantation hospital.) Then the proper match has to be determined: blood types, scoring system, probability of surviving the operation, etc. The funnel reduces again. And finally, in what was the most startling bit of information about available livers, the family of the brain-dead person has the right to override the dying person’s organ donor wishes. It’s at this point the funnel greatly reduces as families, likely distraught from the recent accident, cannot process through the grief to allow their loved one to serve as donor. It was a disheartening look at the numbers of organ donations. I would encourage everyone to sign an organ donor card, display the designation proudly on your driver’s license and most importantly, tell your family members of your desire to serve through the final gift of your body so that others may receive the gift of sight or extended lives.
Now for a quick story about Alex and the Organ Donor Card.
For many years, until I was diagnosed with the virus, I readily signed an organ donor card when I registered for my driver’s license. I would encourage you to consider serving others by doing the same.
After Alex turned 16 the day finally arrived when he could sign up for a driver’s license at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. (No, he didn’t dress in a tux to go to the BMV but here he is on prom night 2004)
As we waited in line for our turn to attempt to get a smile from one of the clerks, I noticed a poster promoting organ donation. After scanning the limited words of the message and being comfortable with the way it presented the idea I leaned over to Alex, gestured to the poster and quietly said “Alex, you ought to seriously consider being an organ donor. Give it some thought. You’ll have opportunity to sign-up in a few minutes.”
Alex is a very thoughtful person – he thinks through each issue with serious care. He didn’t say much but read the poster as I watched his eyes search his brain to process the proposal. We continued our wait.
At our turn to meet the clerk I smiled warmly and took a seat. After receiving the forms to complete I told her we would also like a form for becoming an organ donor as it was under consideration.
We stepped away from her desk and moved to a work table with the paperwork. Alex remained quiet as I worked through the forms and he studied the organ donor poster. When I completed my work, I turned to him and said in a low tone (he doesn’t like any attention drawn to him in public), “So, Alex, are you ready to sign the organ donor card. I think it’s a noble idea.”
I was a bit frustrated by his pause. The matter hits home with me and I know what this could mean to the many persons who are in the situation I may someday find myself. Oh, the ultimate selflessness of the gesture. What’s the matter here?
Alex continued to process the issue. My first thought was to take offense at what I perceived to be selfishness. How could one, upon being declared brain-dead, not want to give this final measure of devotion to his fellow man?
It was time to return to the clerk. “So, Alex, what do you think?” After another moment he replied, “Sure, I’ll sign it.”
But now here’s the real story.
I thanked him and took the form and then said, “If you don’t mind me asking . . . I couldn’t help but notice that you took some time to decide. What was the toughest part of making that decision?” He said, “I just had to work through the scenario of getting the call one day.”
I was speechless. He believed he had just signed up for a lottery and that one day the phone would ring and the State Police voice would say, “Mr. Tidball, you’re number came up and we need your heart today.”
I was humbled by his ultimate selflessness which far surpassed my brain-dead nobleness to give away what I no longer possessed. His young mind had weighed giving his life for another.
I gave him a hug and held back the tears. Who’s getting a lesson today?
I quickly explained the way the program works and discussed the brain-dead situation that would have to first occur. He relaxed but the grandeur of his willingness to sacrifice had already been displayed. Remember Alex the next time you have opportunity to become an organ donor. Forms and smiles are available today at a BMV near you.