By Megan Vandenbos
What if I told you there was a way you could save multiple lives without any effort on your part? Would you do it?
Of course, right?
Alas, the numbers don’t bear that out. Today, over 120,000 people are awaiting an organ donation – but only half of the U.S. population is registered as an organ donor. That correlates to a shortage of donations, a long waiting list for organs and an average of 22 patient deaths every day in the United States.
As we celebrate National Donate Life Month, I’m reminded that organ donation is one of the most selfless acts of giving there is. I’ve seen firsthand how receiving an organ can turn someone’s life around. Organ donation affected my family when my uncle was blessed with a donated kidney in 2014.
He was forced to rely on regular dialysis treatment, a strain that kept him from the normal life that he desperately wanted for over eight years. I remember the day we found out that he might need to find a living kidney donor, as his high antibody levels were making it difficult to find a match from a deceased donor. He told us that he didn’t want his family to be burdened with the responsibility of donating. He said he would feel guilty subjecting us to the pain of surgery and the time spent in recovery. My uncle was also afraid that the new organ would be rejected and that we would be right back where we started.
Despite this, I wanted to help. I began to research kidney donation on my own. Although I hoped I could be a match, I knew it was a long shot because of his antibodies. I started making phone calls to be tested.
That very same week, on July 24th, 2014, my mom woke me up crying. My uncle had received a kidney from a stranger, a surprise donation received in the middle of the night. It was the most incredible relief I had ever felt – he was going to be okay.
The man whose kidney my uncle received had passed away that night. Because of his donor status, he saved at least three lives with his organ donations.
In the US there are far too few organ donors to meet demand, because misconceptions about organ donation are common. Three main arguments crop up in this debate.
• Doctors won’t work to save my life if I’m an organ donor.
• Organ donation means I can’t have an open casket.
• My religion doesn’t approve of it.
The facts: Doctors never prioritize organ donation over the life of the donor, and they do not make decisions about donation until after all possible efforts are made to save a patient’s life. Total brain death must be declared by a physician before any other steps are taken, says David Klassen, chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). As for funeral concerns, many people do not realize that open caskets are fully compatible with organ donation. The Mayo Clinic confirms that because organs are removed surgically and bodies are traditionally dressed and prepared for funerals, no signs of organ donation are visible during an open casket. Finally, most major religions embrace organ donation, believing it to be a selfless act of charity. UNOS offers excellent resources for potential donors of faith, including interviews with a diverse range of faith leaders and research on key religious texts, which affirm that organ donation and faith are often complementary.
The problem of undersupply is severe. Organ donor numbers have plummeted so low that science has stepped in to fill the gaps. Technological advances in 3D printing may one day lead to 3D printed organs that function equally to a human’s own. With this new technology, we may even be able to grow an organ that would mirror the person’s own DNA, to decrease the chance of rejection. These scientific advancements are still far from eradicating the need for organ donors, however, who are the only hope for those whose lives depend on a transplant.
Today, one organ donor can save at least 8 lives. If that’s a legacy you want to leave, it is easy to register to become a donor online via an easy process on the Donate Life America website. National Donate Life Month is the perfect time to celebrate what it really means to be an organ donor. And from my own experience, I can say that when one of your loved ones gets a second chance at life, every day is a celebration.