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Never Too Late to Donate

Posted 3/13/2018 by UHBlog

The waiting list for organ, eye and tissue donations continues to grow. Talk to us about how you can change another person's world for the better by signing up to be an organ donor.

Smiling older couple sitting on sofa

Every 10 minutes someone is added to the waiting list for an organ transplant. Nearly 64 percent of these people are over the age 50, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). Despite this ongoing need, myths and misperceptions abound when it comes to organ, eye and tissue donations, especially among older adults who believe they're too old to register as a donor.

Don't rule yourself out. No matter how old you are, your donation is needed, says transplant surgeon Kenneth Chavin, MD, PhD, who is the director of the University Hospitals Transplant Institute. In fact, 20 people die each day while waiting for a transplant, which often takes years to come through.

“No organ is too old,” Dr. Chavin says. “As people age, some of their organs may be less robust, but we're still able to maximize the potential of every donation.”

For example, over time kidneys can become less functionally effective. Despite this, an older donor's kidneys can be used to help a person whose kidney function is so low that they have to remain on dialysis. The older donor’s kidneys can have the strength needed to provide the transplant recipient with enough renal function to get off dialysis.

Even if you have a chronic medical condition, your organs can be life-saving to another person, Dr. Chavin says.

“When I talk to patients, I often use the analogy of a car,” he says. “For example if a living donor gives a completely functioning kidney, it's like a high-performance Bentley or Lamborghini. If the kidney is functioning well and coming from a deceased donor, it's like a new model car being driven off the lot that can be used by anyone from a newborn up to a 70- or 80-year-old. If the kidney is from someone with a higher kidney donor profile index (KDPI) – due to risk factors such as age, hypertension or diabetes – it's more like a used car. The function is not as perfect as a new car, but it still can keep a recipient in good health. We would be able to give that to someone with similar KDPI or other health issues.”

Sometimes, people don't sign up to be an organ donor for other reasons besides their age or medical condition.

“There is still plenty of misinformation and several urban legends about being an organ donor,” Dr. Chavin says. “When I speak in front of groups, I will sometimes hear things such as, 'my religion doesn't endorse organ donations,' 'I won't be able to have an open casket funeral' and other concerns.”

According to Dr. Chavin, most organized religions support organ donations and view it as an act of love toward others. Additionally, choosing to donate your organs doesn't prevent an open casket funeral.

Even if you're registered as an organ donor in your state or on your driver's license, it's still important to tell your family members and friends. If you are sick, injured or admitted to the hospital, the medical staff's first priority is always to save your life. Dr. Chavin says one common misconception is that organ donors are not prioritized in emergency rooms, but that simply isn’t true. Only if lifesaving methods have failed does donation become a possibility.

“By expressing your desire to be an organ donor, that's your chance to live on by giving another person a second chance at life,” Dr. Chavin says. “If everyone signed up and committed to be an organ donor, we could reduce the disparity of those dying with those waiting for a transplant.”

Kenneth Chavin, MD, PhD is a transplant surgeon, director of the Transplant Institute at University Hospitals and division chief, Transplant and Hepatobiliary Surgery, University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Chavin or any other doctor online.

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