Heroes: Organ donors giving the gift of life

Surgeons at work performing an organ transplant procedure. (Photo: David Tadevosian, via Shutterstock)

With over 100,000 Americans waiting for a lifesaving transplant, and about 20% of them living in the Golden State, it’s critical for us to remember the importance of Donate Life Month, which takes place nationally every April. It’s a symbolic time to recognize the miracle of life that organ donors give to recipients and encourage all Americans to consider registering to be possible donors.

There is a lot to feel good about as we reflect on the success of organ donation in California, even despite the challenges presented by the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

For the nearly 22,000 individuals in the Golden State who are waiting to receive lifesaving hearts, livers, lungs, and kidneys, it is the only issue that matters.

When a person is able to donate, they have the potential to save up to eight lives, restore sight for two people, and improve the life and health of as many as 75 individuals through tissue donation. In 2020, OneLegacy, the nation’s largest organ procurement organization (OPO), transplanted more than 1,660 organs, marking the sixth consecutive year of record-breaking life-saving organ transplants and enabled nearly 200,000 healing tissue transplants. These statistics represents thousands of families that now get the opportunity to have more birthdays, holidays, and special moments with their loved ones.

This work is only possible however through close collaboration between OPOs, hospitals, doctors, regulators and communities. Which is why we have long been committed to working in partnership with the community to raise awareness about the need to donate and coordinate closely with hospitals and transplant centers to facilitate donation.

While many Californians may not think about organ donation beyond the pink dot on their driver’s license, for the nearly 22,000 individuals in the Golden State who are waiting to receive lifesaving hearts, livers, lungs, and kidneys, it is the only issue that matters.

But we know that right now there are simply not enough donors to meet the existing and growing demand.

To understand how we begin to address this, we must first understand the realities of organ donation.

First and foremost, not everyone is medically able to donate. In fact, less than one percent of all deaths meet the specific medical criteria to be an organ donor and, of those who do, providers must consider a donor’s blood type, immune systems,  body size, and medical testing when matching with recipients, as well as the physical distance between donors and recipients.

Twenty years ago, non-white donation rates were only 25% regionally — today these rates are up to nearly 70%.

Beyond eligibility, there is a clear need to increase organ donation registration in California. While most Americans support donation in concept, in action, only a fraction are registered donors or authorize donation after a family member’s death. And this number is even lower in communities of color- studies have shown that donation among BIPOC is, on average, 15% to 30% lower.

But we have an opportunity to begin to close this gap and, in OneLegacy’s service area – the most ethnically and culturally diverse in the nation – we have begun to do so.

Twenty years ago, non-white donation rates were only 25% regionally — today these rates are up to nearly 70%, far exceeding nearly all of  the 57 other Organ Procurement Organizations (OPOs). Additionally, OneLegacy’s most recent 12-month Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) determined donation rate was over 76%, exceeding the national average of 71%, despite our uniquely diverse region.

These improvements are founded in concerted efforts to become part of the fabric of our neighborhoods, develop teams that are culturally competent and investment in community outreach and family care specialists who come from and speak about the real facts behind donation.

These efforts reach our diverse communities through community groups, ambassadors, churches, schools, local leaders, and in emotionally challenging moments of loss, that can start to heal by the decision to leave a legacy of life through donation.  The result is the development of renewed trust that is in turn increasing organ donor registration and actual lifesaving donation in the communities where it is needed most.

As we look back on this year’s Donate Life Month, let’s commemorate the successes and advances we’ve made thus far, and make a renewed pledge to continue to educate our communities on the incredible life-saving gift of organ donation. Because it is only through community collaboration and a commitment to improvement that we can provide more opportunities for those who are greatest in need.

Editor’s Note: Tom Mone is the CEO of OneLegacy, a non-profit organization responsible for facilitating organ donation in Southern California.

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