Health & Wellness

When the body's factory shuts down, organ donors are angels of mercy

When the body's factory shuts down, organ donors are angels of mercy
• But finding one may take a prayer – and a miracle

From the The Hard News Cafe 5-25-04


Three hundred and sixty-three days after her kidney transplant, Logan-native Lisa Hutson said a transplant is a treatment, not a cure.

She'll deal with that every day of her life. But Hutson's thrilled to be alive. Period.

Nevermind that she has a smorgasbord of body parts.

"I have three kidneys and two pancreases," the Murray resident said with a smile. "I have mine, his and hers organs."

April is National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Month. But the real bonus for Hutson is celebrating the one-year anniversary, on April 17, of her kidney transplant. That, and moving beyond 12 months filled with eight surgeries, and pushing her recovery powers to their limits.

Hutson, a diabetic, had been on the kidney and pancreas waiting list for nine months in early 2003. The mother of two teens was dying of kidney failure. Typically, the two are transplanted together, but it was more important to save her life than get them both, Hutson said.

She could, literally, live without a pancreas.

"I couldn't wait any longer," Hutson said. "Dialysis was failing. I needed to find a living donor."

Her family decided to test to see if they matched. Shane Smart, Hutson's brother, had volunteered his "duplicity of body parts" to his sister before, their mother Susan Smart said.

Hutson waited to take him up on the offer, but once he matched, the deal was done. Shane was sharing his kidney.

"It was a race against time," Susan said. "I think Lisa would not have lasted one more week. She was down to her last five days."

Shane's digital camera went into the operating room with him, and pictures of the procedure's stages sit in a book on Susan's desk. She flipped through them.

"It's 4 to 5 times harder on the donor than on the recipient," Susan said. "I'm very proud of my son. That he came forward is a tribute to who he is."

Shane's first question as he woke was about Lisa.

"Its quite miraculous," Susan assured him. "That kidney started working for her right on the table."

The year-long wait before Lisa's transplant was really awful, Susan said, because Lisa was fading. But Lisa's race against time wasn't so different from the race thousands of Americans face while waiting for organ donations.

According to www.yesutah.org, 16 people die every day waiting for organ donations.

David R. Nemelka, of Salt Lake City, founded Quest for the Gift of Life, a non-profit organization soliciting "organ donation, recognition, and financial aid for people needing organ transplants."

According to Quest, at www.nemelkafamily.com/quest, 6,000 people die each year waiting for a transplant, and the national transplant waiting list contains more than 84,000 individuals. The foundation "is committed to helping save these lives by doing 'whatever it takes' to significantly increase the availability of life-saving transplant organs, eyes, and tissue."

Utah now has more than one million registered donors, the highest per capita of any state in the nation, according to Quest's Website.

About three times as many organs could be available as patients who need them, Susan said.

"Although a huge percentage of society believes in organ donation, they rarely sign donor cards. People need to become registered donors."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encourages donors to talk to family members "so they know your wishes," because "even if you've signed something, your family may be asked to give consent before donation can occur."

Some people may be hesitant to donate organs for a variety of reasons, especially by believing some well-traveled myths, Susan said.

Some myths can be found at TransWeb (www.transweb.org), such as, "Rich and famous people get moved to the top of the waiting list, while 'regular' people have to wait a long time for a transplant."

TransWeb quotes the United Network for Organ Sharing: "The length of time it takes to receive a transplant is governed by many factors, including blood type, length of time on the waiting list, severity of illness and other medical criteria. Factors such as race, gender, age, income or celebrity status are never considered when determining who receives an organ."

Susan said another myth is, "If I'm in an accident and the hospital knows I want to be a donor, the doctors won't try to save my life."

"The medical team treating you is separate from the transplant team," the site states. "The organ procurement organization is not notified until all lifesaving efforts have failed and death has been determined. The OPO does not notify the transplant team until your family has consented to donation."

Also, no age limits exist for organ donation. Susan learned this in 1996 when she gained legal guardian rights to her elderly parents and called the OPO to see if her parents could aid anyone on the waiting list.

The OPO reviews each situation at the time of death and determines a donor's eligibility on a case-by-case basis.

But the truth of organ donation remains – it does save and improve lives.

One donor can save eight people and bless about 50, Susan said. Beside the heart, intestines, kidneys, liver, lungs and pancreas, a number of tissues can be donated at the time of death.

"When tragedy happens, that's horrific," she said. "But to have a medical miracle that can restore life and not be able to receive that miracle is a needless tragedy."

Eight years ago, without any inclination of what her future with organ donation might hold, Susan decided "she could do some good from where she sat."

She started working with donor organizations to bring awareness to Cache Valley. Her enthusiasm spread to the fire chief and to the mayor, who felt raising local awareness was an "extension of their mission to save lives."

Their first step was sending 18,000 donor cards to Logan residents with their monthly utility bills. The next few years saw organ and tissue donor posters on Logan Transit District buses, radio ads, an open house for valley clergy and another batch of donor cards with utility bills.

"The media here are wonderful. The people here are wonderful," Susan said. She kept a file of people who offered to help if Cache Valley ever decided to do an organ donation awareness run.

Last year, the encouragement of a donor family from Denver pulled that folder out to reality.

Susan didn't do a thing, she said, except contact committee members -- who took the ball and ran with it.

"I pretty much just kicked the ball in from side out this time," she said.

The committee's original plan was to organize the run this year and hold it in 2005, but they decided to go for it, she said. Cache Valley's first 5K run to raise organ donation awareness took place April 17 at Utah State University's track and field complex, northeast of Romney Stadium.

"There is a whole partnership dedicated to saving lives, avoiding needless tragedy," Susan said of the committee, community and surrounding area.

That partnership includes, but isn't limited to, the Volunteer Center (inside Smith's on 400 North), USU, the Logan City Fire Department, Intermountain Donor Services, Quest for the Gift of Life Foundation of Salt Lake City and the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness of California.

The latter was founded by Robert Redford's son, who is a donor recipient.

David Nemelka summed up organ donation in a Quest newsletter, saying "collectively we sent man to the moon and back, yet we as a society are unnecessarily allowing an average of 16 people to die daily."

Susan agrees.

"A needless tragedy is something I can't abide," Susan said. "These are preventable deaths."

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