UTAH (ABC4) – The year 2020 was undoubtedly unprecedented. While the coronavirus pandemic raged on, a Utah healthcare system broke a record.

Intermountain Healthcare reports that they peformed a record 222 adult patient abdominal organ transplants thanks to organ donors and a transplant program that maintained key safety protocols.

The previous record was set in 2019 with 186 performed.

Intermountain Healthcare reports that the biggest increase last year was in liver transplantation, which jumped from 53 in 2019 to 79 in 2020.

“In an unprecedented year, we could not have given so many people new leases on lives without the generosity of so many deceased and living donors and their families,” says Diane Alonso, MD, transplant surgeon and medical director of Intermountain Healthcare’s abdominal transplant program. “We are honored to be stewards of these selfless gifts.”

In 2020, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) reported a 6% increase in organ donation for deceased donors in the U.S., marking the 10th consecutive year of setting an all-time record.

In total, 12,587 people donated one or more organs to save the life or improve the life of another, resulting in more than 33,000 people receiving life-saving transplants.

Despite this remarkable feat, officials say there are currently more than 108,000 people on organ transplant waiting lists in the U.S.

In Utah alone, 773 people are waiting for an organ.

Intermountain has shared the stories of some Utahns who had their lives changed in 2020 due to organ donation:

  • 23-year-old Makelle Groves of Sandy was born with a liver disease and has been on-and-off the transplant list and in-and-out of hospitals her whole life. In 2019, shortly after getting married, her health began to deteriorate and on February 22, 2020, she was offered what she calls, “the perfect liver.” The day of the transplant, her heart broke for the donor’s family and says she feels a great responsibility to dedicate her life to her donor. “I always wanted to have kids but couldn’t. Now I can,” said Groves. “I’ve got a second chance at life with a family.”
  • 31-year-old Sam Hoopes of Duchesne had always been fairly healthy. He is an active former college basketball player who now works as a high school counselor and girls’ basketball coach. However, a few years ago, he was diagnosed with PSC (primary sclerosing cholangitis), where the bile ducts in the liver become inflamed and blocked. When he was told he needed a transplant, he immediately thought one of his three brothers would be a possible match. But to his surprise, it was his best friend and brother-in-law, Derek Herrera, who was a perfect match.

    “Derek is a hero to me,” said Hoopes. Herrera says he’s not a hero, but it’s a life changing experience to help a loved one. Hoopes says he now has a chance to be himself again and hopes the liver will outlast him as he and his wife raise their three kids and he gets back to mentoring and coaching in the Duchesne community.
  • 38-year-old Dejaun Ashley of Law Vegas: While others were saying goodbye to 2020, Ashley was welcoming a new lease on life thanks to COVID-19. A recipient higher on the transplant list had tested positive for COVID-19, moving Ashley up on the list to receive a kidney if he could get to the hospital quickly, which he did.

    After not addressing his high blood pressure in his 20’s, Ashley found himself on dialysis three times a week, for the last three years. Just a month later after receiving his new kidney, Ashley already has more energy, better breathing, and a reminder to everyone: “Don’t take life for granted. It can change in a minute.”
  • 43-year-old Ron Lindsay, of Highland: Just three years ago doctors diagnosed Lindsay with a rare type of liver sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease of the organs. Lindsay really thought by just controlling his diabetes that his symptoms would go away. However, in 2020 Lindsay saw his health deteriorate to the point where he couldn’t even walk and needed a liver transplant.

    He received his transplant on December 10, 2020. His donor had donated all of his organs to various recipients. “I can’t ever repay the debt,” said Lindsay. “Words are just insufficient to adequately express my gratitude.” Lindsay is now back to being active and he and his wife are looking forward to seeing their six kids, ages 4 to 24, grow up.

Amid the pandemic, the Intermountain Transplant Program, based at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, says they implemented safety protocols and turned to telemedicine and tele-video visits whenever possible to continue their work.

“During an unimaginable year and one many would like to forget – Intermountain and the populations of Utah, Idaho and Nevada through organ donation created a record number of opportunities to save the lives of others,” says Richard Gilroy, MD, transplant hepatologist and Intermountain Healthcare’s liver transplant medical director. “And despite the barriers and challenges of COVID-19, transplant patients were a population that saw a rare silver lining to the pandemic.”

The Intermountain Transplant Program serves patients throughout the nation and partners with DonorConnect, the organ procurement agency for Utah and the Intermountain West. They also continue to be the only transplant program in Utah to participate in a paired kidney exchange program with the National Kidney Registry. These partnerships facilitate even more transplants for incompatible pairs or recipients than in years past.

“Participating in the National Kidney Registry, improves our recipient’s best chance of finding a well-matched donor,” says Donald Morris, MD, nephrologist and Intermountain Healthcare’s kidney transplant medical director. “Transplantation then gets them back to their families and living a full and active life.”

These 2020 record numbers also come despite Intermountain pausing its living donor program for a short time in the spring when COVID-19 initially struck.

To learn more about organ donation or register to become an organ donor, go to intermountainhealthcare.org/donatelife.