Is It My Turn Yet? How You Can End the Transplant Wait

5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour. Time dragged on as my friends and I watched our number slowly move up the 54-person line at the hot pot restaurant. The aromatic smell of herbal broths and spices wafted through the air as our stomachs relentlessly growled. Although the wait was gruesome, there was a guarantee that we would—eventually—get our well-deserved spot at a table.

But if you think an hour is bad, imagine waiting three to five years for something you’ve been dying to have — with no guarantee it’ll arrive at all. 

According to the US Health Resources and Services Administration, that is the case for the more than 113,000 individuals on the national organ transplant wait list as of July 2019. Every day, an average of 20 people die waiting for a healthy organ. But what if we could help shorten the transplant list?
Though almost all U.S. adults support organ donation, not all of them are registered. A lack of public awareness is a main cause for that gap, and the solution lies in your hands: register as an organ donor, and encourage others to do the same.

organ donation
Why should you become an organ donor?

On December 19, 2018, the waiting game was over for Daru Smith, a 29-year old truck driver from Chicago’s South Side, as he was transported to the surgery room to receive a new heart, liver, and kidney. Smith suffered for five years from a rare, life-threatening disease affecting multiple organs that left him bedridden and unable to carry out his duty as a father to the fullest potential. The transplant would give him the health he needed to be a dad who could live to watch his 3-year old son grow up. 

Just a day later, Sarah McPharlin, a 29-year old occupational therapist, also underwent a triple organ transplant, replacing the same three organs. She had been suffering from complications from another rare autoimmune disease that affects the heart. For McPharlin, the transplant would give her back a life with a family she loved dearly, a life that had continuously tried to escape her as she needed surgery after surgery since the age of 12. These two transplants, which both took place at UChicago Medicine, marked the first back-to-back triple-organ transplants in U.S. history and were only possible because of the generosity of anonymous donors. 

“The real heroes are the donors,” said Talia Baker, surgical and program director of the hospital’s liver transplant program, in a UChicago Medicine story. “It’s always amazing to me that in the face of whatever unknown tragedy just happened to them, these donor families are able to have the peace of mind to consider donation and to give a gift of life to complete strangers.”

All the reasons one should become an organ donor are simple and can be narrowed to one fundamental human desire—to help others in need. The donation of organs can give another individual, maybe even your loved one or yourself, another chance to live. You can donate your heart, liver, pancreas, intestines, and two lungs and two kidneys. That means you can save up to eight lives! Becoming an organ donor affects not only the patient by giving them a new chance to live their life, but it also impacts the providers and caregivers who are in the journey along with the patient. As the number of medical cases requiring an organ transplant increases, the gap between supply and demand increases, making it important for those who are unregistered to start considering enrollment in organ donation.

Image credit: organdonor.gov
How can you become an organ donor?

The simplest and most common way to register as an organ donor is registering online at organdonor.gov. You can also opt in at a local motor vehicle department during your driver’s license registration or renewal process. But even outside of deciding to be or not to be an organ donor, a first step everyone can take is to have a discussion about organ donation with close friends and family. Not only can this help you reaching a decision, but it is also an essential act of sharing your ultimate wishes.

Many myths surrounding organ donation continue to persist, causing individuals to hesitate to register as organ donors. For example, you might not believe you meet the criteria of what you envision as the “ideal donor.” But, anyone, regardless of age, background, or medical history, can be a donor! You may also be wary about any costs that may incur from transplant procedures. But there is no cost to donors or their families for organ donation!

Of course, there are reasons you may have for not becoming an organ donor, including personal, medical, and religious reasons, and I completely respect that. But, researchers have found that there are many more people who are simply not aware of the possibility of donating an organ, do not know what steps to take, or want to learn more about the organ transplant process before making a commitment to donation. Knowing this, effective public education and efforts to address common misconceptions become even more important in encouraging people to register as organ donors. You can make a decision that can be the difference between tragedy and miracle—a tragedy far more dire than not getting a table at that popular joint and a miracle far more fulfilling than a full stomach.

Click here to register as an organ donor. 

Note: You can also donate some of your organs while you’re still alive, including one of your kidneys or part of your liver!

Yolanda Yu is a fourth-year student studying Biology at the University of Chicago. She plans on attending medical school after her undergraduate studies. She enjoys graphic design and using the visual medium to make information more accessible. 

Yolanda’s article is part of a collaboration between the Illinois Science Council and the University of Chicago.

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