By Reg Green
Very soon, the number of Americans waiting for a transplanted organ will reach 100,000. Every day, 18 of them die.
These people — who need a heart or liver, kidney, lungs or pancreas — live perpetually on the edge, always aware of a winner-take-all race between their wasting disease and a cure over which they have no control. Normally, the cure can come from some other family’s willingness to donate an organ after that family’s loved one has just died.
Twenty years ago, there were only 20,000 on the waiting list. In the most obvious sense, the ever-lengthening lines represent a failure to solve the problem.
But in another sense, the growing list indicates how much transplantation techniques have improved in a few decades, causing a skyrocketing demand that has moved the procedure from science fiction to common therapy.
Close to half a million people in the United States have had an organ transplant. Millions more have had a tissue transplant: skin, bone, corneas, heart valves, tendons. The sobering fact is that any one of us could need a new organ or tissue — and virtually every one of us could be a donor.
Some recipients are people whose lives, though not threatened, are miserably constricted. Recipients may be in chronic pain, blind, suffering from severe burns and bent spines, unable to walk or pick up their children.
Into their world comes transplantation like a lifeline. It is not simply the best cure. For most of them, it is the only cure.
But it is not a cure-all in every case. As with any surgery, complications are possible; the powerful medications that recipients have to take so the body will not reject the new organ can have serious side effects. Even so, success rates have generally advanced year by year, and dramatically over the longer term. Results vary widely by organ but, for example, about 90 percent of heart patients are alive after one year, 75 percent after five years, and 55 percent after ten.
Given that all these people were terminally ill, that many were close to death at the time of their operation, and that over the years, some proportion of them would have died from causes unrelated to their organ disease, the value of transplantation is readily apparent.
Saying yes to donation produces on average three or four organs, saving three or four families from devastation. In many cases, one person donating tissue can help up to 50 other people. Most of us in our whole lives will never again have as great an opportunity to change the world for the better.
To learn more about organ donation, and how you can help, visit the website set up in honor of our 7-year-old son, Nicholas, whose donated organs have meant life for so many others. The web address is http://www.nicholasgreen.org/.