The facts on living organ donation from a transplant surgeon

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – On average, 17 people in America die each day waiting for an organ donation, according to Dr. Diane Alonso, a transplant surgeon who directs the abdominal transplant program at Intermountain Healthcare.

With more than 100,000 people on the list needing either a kidney or liver transplant, the demand is quite high. Last year, a little over 39,000 transplants were performed, according to data provided by Alonso, highlighting the need for individuals willing to give a part of themselves to help another.

Of course, deceased organ donation is always an option, but Alonso tells ABC4 that living donation is much more preferred.

“If we look at statistics, where we look at the average lifespan, if you will, of the organ, we would say that a living kidney will probably last at least five years longer than a deceased donor kidney,” says Alonso. “We estimate that kidney from the deceased donor list may last between 10 and 15 years and as living as maybe between 15 and 20, somewhere around there.”

Alonso continues to explain that an organ from a younger person will obviously more than likely last longer and be healthier than one from an older person.

The process of becoming a living organ donor can seem a bit complex, but at transplant centers, such as the ones at Intermountain Healthcare, try to make it as easy as possible for those who are interesting in donating. Whether a person is choosing to donate to help prolong a loved one’s life, or choosing to give anonymously to a stranger, whom Alonso calls such donors “Good Samaritans,” several screenings are held to determine compatibility.

It starts with a questionnaire about family health history, risk factors for kidney disease, and other checkpoints. If the first phase goes well, prospective donors are moved on to the next step, which can involve a blood test. Alonso says typically, donors and recipients should have the same blood type to achieve an ideal pairing, but the great thing is that nowadays a system is in place to get a matching organ from any where in the country if donor isn’t a perfect match for their intended recipient.

Thanks to the National Kidney Registry, a program known as kidney paired exchange makes it possible to swap organs that aren’t a great match for ones that are. In cases where the exchange is needed, the donor’s kidney, for example, may not be the best fit for their recipient, but another one in the registry may be. The donor would still give their organ, but the recipient would receive a better fit from someone else, with the donor going to a more compatible match elsewhere. This system, which has been in place for about 15 years, is a “gamechanger,” according to Alonso.

Understandably, donating a part of a person’s body can be daunting, overwhelming, and downright scary to many. Alonso assures that at any point in the process, the donor-to-be can drop out without any consequence or pressure. Prospective donors are frequently asked about their willingness and it is made clear that the procedure is completely voluntary.

It’s also quite safe to donate as well, says Alonso.

“We would probably estimate it to be, the risk is about point .003% which is like three deaths out of 10,000 or something like that. So, it’s very, very low and that risk of death is estimated based on a study that they looked at 10,000 donors and it was a long time ago. The people that passed away were bleeding but that really doesn’t happen anymore because our surgeries have gotten a lot better since then,” she says.

Alonso wishes that more people looked into kidney donation because it’s more of a common necessity than most would realize.

“You look at a room and if there’s 10 people in that room, at least one or more of you are going to get kidney failure need a transplant someday,” Alonso states.

As obesity and subsequently kidney disease and fatty liver disease continue to rise in the United States, getting informed on organ donation will be more important than ever, according to Alonso.

“Being aware of and advocating for over-50 living or deceased donation is incredibly vital for us to be able to continue to take care of these patients in the future,” Alonso says. “And you never know what may happen to you.”

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