Finding Organ Donors Concealed in Plain Sight

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Last June, after it became clear that their 3-month-old son, Nathan, needed a liver transplant, Rob and Christina Whitehead of Mokena, III., created a Facebook page to tell his story. Word spread quickly. “More than a hundred people called our donor hotline,” recalled Talia B. Baker, director of the Living Donor Liver Transplant program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. In August, Nathan received a transplant. He’s had some complications, but nine months later, videos show him cruising happily with his walker.

Nathan’s case is not unique. “There have been several instances where people have posted a need for an organ for a baby or an adult and we’ve had a massive outpouring,” Baker said.
Only one of the candidates ended up donating, of course. That left Baker wondering whether the others would be willing to give to someone else. So she asked them. “Almost 100 percent said yes,” she said. Now she is working with Organize to develop a database of living organ donors who are interested in helping strangers. “It needs to be done systematically, ethically, and equitably,” Baker cautions.

If the potential for living organ donation could be realized, it would save thousands of lives each year in the United States. In one poll, one in four people questioned said that they would be willing to donate a kidney to save the life of a stranger. But in 2015, only 6,000 living people actually donated organs across the country, leaving more than 121,000 people remaining on waiting lists for a transplant. The vast majority need kidneys or livers. Most wait years for an organ; thousands dies before one arrives. Since the 1970s, the field or organ transplantation in the United States has focused primarily on deceased donors. Although 150 million Americans have registered as organ donors, the number of transplants has remained essentially flat for a decade. Today, the focus is shifting.

“Living donation is the area most amendable to change,” said Andrew Cameron, director of liver transplantation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “It’s minimally invasive and proven safe, the organ you get from a living donor is a better organ, it works right away and lasts longer and, when polled, the majority indicate a willingness to donate.”

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