The Wait: Life on the transplant list

As of last week, there were over 93,000 Americans awaiting kidney transplants. Richard Nixon, an accountant with a famous name and a faint Jamaican accent, is one of them. People with serious renal disease can live for years on dialysis, but as Nixon’s story illustrates, it’s an unpleasant and exhausting process.

Like many people on the waiting list, Nixon is hoping to find a living donor. He hasn’t found a match among his family or friends, so he’s using social media to recruit strangers willing to help. While he waits, Nixon is raising awareness of kidney disease and keeping himself healthy.

Here’s his story:

Update (6/6/2013): Nixon is continuing his online search for a suitable donor. He posted his story on Reddit earlier this month. You can see it here.

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Inmates, organ transplants and ethics

Members of a chain gang get to work. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Should prisoners be allowed to volunteer as organ donors? Lawmakers in Utah decided recently that the answer is yes, but the issue remains controversial — especially when it involves inmates on death row.

This story from NBC News provides a pretty good overview of the issue, including an interview with an inmate Joanne Ford who is pleased about the new law. Ford sees organ donation as a chance to redeem herself for past mistakes, but not everyone thinks allowing prisoners who die in jail to donate is a good idea:

Whether to accept organs from prisoners has long been a thorny issue. Ethics experts say it pits questions of coercion of a vulnerable population against the desperate need for organs in a country where nearly 118,000 people are waiting for hearts, kidneys, livers and other life-saving transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. In most states, accepting organs from inmates who die while in custody is permitted only rarely and under strictly controlled circumstances. No state allows donation of organs from executed prisoners.

Now for an even tricker ethical question: Should an inmate on death row be allowed to receive an organ? Horacio Alberto Reyes-Camarena, who’s awaiting execution in Oregon, has been on dialysis years. Last April, prison doctors suggested he be put on the state’s waiting list for a kidney transplant. And, according to this story from ABC News, his access to prison health care could even improve his chances of getting an organ.

A hard decision, for sure. What do you think?

Today’s factoids:

British group wants to make organ donation an act of faith


For the last several months, a British nonprofit has been collaborating with churches to recruit organ and blood donors in the UK. The project, called Flesh and Blood, frames donation as an act of generosity in line with living a life of faith. British churchgoers are already more likely to give blood or indicate their wishes to donate their organs after they die, but Flesh and Blood wants that trend to continue.

The group is providing educational materials and encouraging churches to host blood drives and organ donation events. Here’s an edited email Q &A with Director Juls Hollidge:

What are some examples of ways individual congregations are raising awareness of organ and blood donation?

Congregations are using the campaign resources in their services in order to introduce the campaign and talk about the need for blood and organ donation within the UK, the facts and figures,  the impact of donation, and also how the church can embrace donation as an additional way of giving. … Many have also put posters around their premises, added web banners or icons to their website and social media, included stories and information in their newsletter/mailouts and some have volunteered their venue as a future blood donation site.  Others have organized a trip to the local blood donation session and have block booked appointment so that they can give together.
How has the campaign been received so far?
Fantastically!  We couldn’t have asked for a better response, mostly people were surprised that it hadn’t happened already.  The basic concept of the campaign is a call for generosity in order to transform the lives of others which the church knows well and has championed throughout its history.  At a local level there are many congregations filled with individuals who have been life long supporters of either blood or organ donation and this has given them an opportunity to share their experiences and talk openly about why they support donation.  The campaign has also allowed people to voice their fears and misconceptions and has empowered those with incredible stories to speak of their personal experience or that of a loved one.
Could you see similar projects working for religious communities in other countries?
The structure and format of Flesh and Blood could be used by any religious communities anywhere in the world and simply adapted to how donation is operated in that particularly country.  The underlying message of generosity is a simple one and one that most religious communities identify with.
What’s surprised you the most since the program launched?

That a joint blood and organ campaign had never been done before in the UK!  Mostly though we were surprised by the research at the beginning of the campaign which showed that a much higher than average percentage of church goers donated blood and had joined the Organ Donor register.  The research also showed that local churches rarely mentioned blood and organ donation and so our focus has been raise the profile of donation within churches and encourage churches to talk more about blood and organ donation particularly as an additional form of giving.

Faith-based efforts to educate potential organ donors aren’t limited to the UK. Here’s an information page maintained by a Catholic group in North America, and here are educational materials for religious organizations provided by the U.S. government.
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An ‘overnight mission of death and life’

It’s not uncommon for transplant recipients to go public, and the families of donors often honor their loved ones by telling their stories. What’s rare are narratives about the space between, tales of the people who pluck hearts, lungs, livers and kidneys from brain-dead bodies and bring those organs to surgeons who will them to extend other patients’ lives.

That’s why this story from the Ottawa Citizen is so amazing. It follows a team of doctors on an overnight flight to retrieve a heart from a patient at one hospital and bring to a transplant center. One of the doctors quoted in the story, Andrew Pipe, compares the process to delivering a baby:

Retrieving a donor heart, Pipe says, is always an emotional assignment. Donors typically die a tragic, frequently accidental death. Often, they are young. (One of Pipe’s first retrievals was the heart of a 13-year-old boy who collapsed playing hockey.)

“At one end of the flight there is great sadness and great tragedy,” Pipe says. “At the other end of the flight, there is generally a cause for celebration and a recognition of the unbelievable generosity of the donor and their families.”

Although the story takes place in Canada, the process for organ retrieval is similar in the United States. You can learn more about it here.