From the April 2015 issue

Should Your Family Be Organ Donors?

The thought of registering to be an organ donor can seem gruesome and unthinkable to many families. Who among us wants to think about a scenario in which someone in our family – including ourselves – are no longer alive and their organs are used to help another? And yet, though we hope that this never happens, the choice to register to be an organ donor is a meaningful one.

Registering to donate vital organs can save as many as eight lives. And that’s not all. Up to 50 lives can be enhanced thanks to the gift of a donor’s tissues.

And the need is great. Across the country, there are approximately 123,000 people – children and adults – waiting for an organ transplant to spare their life, and about 3,000 in Michigan, says Dr. Henry Walters III, chief of cardiovascular surgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, who performs heart transplants at the hospital.

“If you register, and you become a donor, you’re going to help others,” he says. “You’re going to relieve the grieving of a family who has someone dying of something that can be helped by a transplant.”

Contemplating whether your family should register to be organ donors? In honor of National Donate Life Month, Walters sheds light on transplants in children, the facts about organ donation and how to sign up.

About transplants

When it comes to children, the solid organs that can be transplanted are the heart, liver, kidney, small intestine, lung and pancreas, Dr. Walters says. In terms of frequency, kidneys top the list, followed by liver, heart and lung.

There are a number of reasons a child may end up needing a donation of any one of these major organs, from end-stage renal disease in the kidneys, cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart), to cystic fibrosis in the lungs – among others.

About 1,900 kids are on the waiting list for an organ nationally, Dr. Walters notes, and here in Detroit, Dr. Walters works with pediatric patients waiting for heart transplants first hand.

“It’s not possible to say really – to tell a parent how long their child will wait for an organ. That’s the problem,” he says. “There are too few organs available and too many children who need those organs.”

Every day, the list of those waiting for an organ grows, and every day, an average of 21 people dies waiting, Donate Life notes. The wait time for an organ depends on a few different factors. The rules are governed by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

“In general, organs are allocated by regions and to the sickest patients in your region, and if that is equalized, to the person who has been on the waiting list the longest,” Dr. Walters explains. “These rules are very complicated and they are different for each organ, too.” Donations aren’t necessarily child-to-child or adult-to-adult.

Can I be a donor?

Families may have questions about organ donation – and might be contemplating if they should sign up. “What we want people to do more than anything is to at least ask that question, and to get the right information when considering their response to that question – should the unthinkable happen,” Dr. Walters says.

First, it should be known: Anybody can be a donor.

“Nobody should feel like they’re too old or too sick,” Dr. Walters says.

There are no age specifications. Even kids under 18 can register to be organ donors, but until they’re 18, parents make that call. Gift of Life Michigan notes that most major religions approve of organ and tissue donation, and open casket funerals are still an option should one donate.

Being a donor doesn’t cost a thing, either. Gift of Life Michigan absorbs the costs related to the organ donation procedure, the organization notes.

And should a registered organ donor find herself in the hospital, doctors will absolutely work just as hard to keep you alive. “Being a donor doesn’t affect your care one iota,” Dr. Walters stresses.

Even more questions and answers can be found through GiftofLifeMichigan.org, he adds.

Communicating with your family about your desire to donate when you pass is incredibly important, Dr. Walters emphasizes. Then, there are no surprises and they won’t have to make the decision on your behalf.

Becoming a donor

Signing up to be an organ donor is simple. “Once you consider it, and you get the right information and you make up your mind, then if you decide you want to be an organ donor, there’s three ways to do it,” Dr. Walter says.

One is signing up through the Michigan Secretary of State, which can be done online or at the office. Or, go through Gift of Life Michigan. Call 800-482-4881, or visit GiftofLifeMichigan.org.

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