March - April 2016

Written by Steven Burns
From the column To Your Health

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A few weeks ago, I heard a story on the radio about the passing of the longest-living heart transplant recipient. John McCafferty of Buckinghamshire, Great Britain, died at age 73, having received a heart transplant 33 years ago. He competed in 11 “Transplant Games,” a sort of “Olympics” for transplant recipients, and he and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last fall. So, from age 40 to 73, he lived a full life that would not have been possible without a heart donation from a person he never met.

I have been privileged to care for several transplant recipients over my career. Most of them were kidney recipients, but two received hearts, and several received livers. Others received corneas, and many others bone graft material. There were even a couple of lung transplants. All of the recipients were grateful for the gifts they received.

At the end of my training (1986), the expected lifespan for a heart transplant recipient was about five-to-seven years, but now, anti-rejection drugs have improved such that much longer survival is possible. On average, 76 percent of heart patients are still alive five years after their transplants. Recipients of other organs have even better track records.

At this moment, around 121,500 people are awaiting organ transplants in the Unites States, with another name added every 12 minutes. Every day, because organs are not available to them, 22 people die. On the other side of the statistics, 1 deceased donor can save up to 8 lives and help up to 50 others, including saving their sight and helping fractures to heal.

So, you say, what does all this have to do with me? First, a statement from our denomination: The Church of the Nazarene encourages its members who do not object personally to support donor/recipient anatomical organs through living wills and trusts. Further, we appeal for a morally and ethically fair distribution of organs to those qualified to receive them (2013) (Manual 2013-2017, Par. 903.1).

At this time, the only way to reduce the number of people who die while awaiting an organ donation is for more people to become donors. It’s really that simple. Donating organs after your own death costs you nothing, and it can save or improve the lives of several other human beings. Deciding to become a living donor is beyond the scope of this article, but it is an option for some. There are several concerns people have about organ donation. Here are a few:

  • It will decrease my medical care near the end of life.  No, it won't. The medical team caring for patients is different from the one that will harvest the organs.
  • I'm too old to donate.  A retired teacher in Texas became the oldest donor when he passed away at age 93. Because of his gracious gift, a 69-year-old woman has a new liver and is doing well. Chances are, most of us are not yet that old.
  • I have other illnesses. My organs won't be usable.  There are certain illnesses, such as HIV or aggressive cancer, that would prevent donation, but most chronic illnesses would not.
  • The program for listing recipients is unfair.  Actually, the allocation process does not take into account income or other status. Decisions about recipients are based on who has the most severe illness at the time the organ becomes available.
  • My body will be left unsuitable for a funeral.  No. There are no apparent changes to a person’s body that would make an open-casket funeral impossible.
  • My family can decide whether to donate my organs after I’m gone.  That is usually false, in most states. If you have not signed up as an organ donor, in the length of time it takes for the legal system to work, your organs will not be healthy enough to save someone’s life.

Methods are being developed to improve the health of donated organs during transport to the recipient. That way, organs can be sent to the most appropriate recipient, no matter his or her location. Also, anti-rejection drugs and methods are improving all the time, allowing longer and longer survival after the transplant occurs.

I strongly encourage everyone to sign up as an organ donor—today, if you have not already done so. And if you think you have signed up, please make sure. Simply signing a donor card or having a sticker on your driver’s license is usually not enough. You may go here to register in your state to become a donor.

Your death can be a source of life to someone else. Please be an organ donor.

Dr. Steven C. Burns is board-certified in family medicine and has been in practice for almost 30 years.

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