Five years ago, one of my best friends passed away after a long, unwinnable battle with a brain tumor. At his memorial service, one particularly gut-wrenching moment stood out: when a family member announced that, already, my friend's corneas were helping another person to see. Generous to a fault, my friend was an organ donor.
We read about organ transplants so often these days that many people probably forget that, until just a few decades ago, such things were impossible, even unthinkable.
In Memphis, the first procedure took place in 1970 when Dr. Louis Britt performed a successful kidney transplant at the University of Tennessee's Bowld Hospital (now part of the Methodist Healthcare system). At the time, Memphis was only the sixth medical center in the nation to transplant a kidney. Since then, more than 1,600 kidney transplants have been performed here.
Liver transplants came next, in 1982, and UT/Methodist has now performed more than 400 of these procedures. "In 2005, we did 132 kidney transplants," says Teresa Berkley, data coordinator with the Methodist Healthcare Transplant Institute. "We did just one live-donor liver transplant last year."
A live-donor transplant? That's possible because a person's liver can regenerate, allowing them to donate a portion to someone else. Plus, everybody is born with a pair of kidneys and can function well with one. "For kidney transplants," says Berkley, "it helps to have a donor in mind, a relative or a friend. The patient brings the donor to meet the transplant team, and we go from there."
Finding a suitable donor is the crucial step in this process. For "cadaveric" procedures -- where organs are procured from a deceased donor -- patients may be on waiting lists for months, even years.
"There is no such thing as being number one on a list, because it can vary from day to day," explains Denise DuVall-Seaman, clinical transplant coordinator for Baptist Memorial Hospital, the only facility in Memphis that performs heart and lung transplants. "Heart transplants are given to recipients based on blood type, body type, and how sick they are. If you were in the intensive-care unit near death, you would move to the top of the list, ahead of other people who had been on the list for two or three years."
Baptist performed its first heart transplant in October 1985, and DuVall-Seaman reports, "That patient is still alive." In fact, she says, "We see a 92 percent survival rate after one year. Out of the 20 heart transplants we did last year, 19 are still alive." The 10-year survival rate is now around 66 percent.
Unlike kidneys, where the donor may be someone the recipient knows, the names of heart and lung patients are placed in a national database maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (www.unos.org). "They have the government grant to oversee all aspects of organ sharing and transplantation," says DuVall-Seaman.
The stress of waiting for a perfect match is just one part of it. Money is another. A typical heart transplant -- operation, medications, and one year of follow-up -- typically costs about $250,000. Until recently, insurance companies considered such procedures "experimental," but more are now paying for these operations.
Pediatric kidney and liver transplants in Memphis are conducted at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center. "The actual number varies from year to year," says Sandy Powell, transplant coordinator for Le Bonheur. "In 2005, we did six kidneys and two livers. In fact, last year we did a transplant on one little girl who was just over a year old, and she got part of her grandmother's liver. They're both doing great, and you'd never know the little girl was ever sick."
So if the survival rate is good, and insurance companies are paying, why aren't organ transplants performed more often? "The tragic truth is that, despite continuing advances in medicine and technology, the demand for organs drastically outstrips the number of organ donors." That's from the Mid-South Transplant Foundation (NSTF), which helps match local donors and recipients and acts as a clearinghouse for information. "Every 94 minutes, someone in this country dies because of the shortage."
More than 500 people in Memphis are currently waiting for an organ. Some have been waiting quite a long time.
"Organ donation is very rewarding for the families," says DuVall-Seaman, and she means for the families of both the recipient and the donor. "They have been thankful that someone else has benefited from the untimely death of a loved one. It is a very good thing to do."
For more information, visit the Mid-South Transplant Foundation Web site, www.midsouthtransplant.org.