February 7th, 2011
More than 110,000 Americans are waiting for organ donations, as they struggle to live with conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. The waiting list is larger than the entire population of cities like South Bend, Indiana or Cambridge, Massachusetts. But hospitals find fewer than 15,000 donors per year, so dozens of those patients die every day before finding a new organ, according to the country’s largest transplant center, the Mayo Clinic, which is located in Rochester, Minnesota. Fortunately, advances in medical technology have helped to uncover a new source of healthy organs – living donors. Doctors transplant more than 6,000 organs from these individuals every year, and the number is growing fast, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The list of extra organs that living donors can spare includes six major parts:
- Kidney: Kidney donation is the most frequent living donor procedure, as healthy people can give up one of their two kidneys and still enjoy a long life as the remaining organ continues to remove waste from the body.
- Liver: Similar to kidneys, the liver grows in pairs, or lobes, in all healthy individuals, helping them digest food and remove waste products from the blood. The organ also has a tremendous power of regeneration, making it perfect for living donation because the remaining lobe grows back in both donor and recipient.
- Lung: Lungs also grow in pairs, so most people can donate a single lung — or just a portion of one — and continue healthy breathing with the remaining parts.
- Pancreas: Although the pancreas cannot regenerate itself, the organ will continue to function even if a living donor gives part of it away. People need the pancreas for its ability to brew enzymes that digest food in the intestine and insulin that controls blood sugar levels.
- Intestine: Intestines don’t grow back, but the tube-shaped organ is so long that it continues to digest food with just a fraction of its original length.
- Heart: The heart can neither repair itself nor function without all its parts, yet living donors can still survive its transplant if they have a waiting replacement heart. This requires a web of donors supplying parts to each other, and is only used when a sick patient needs a double donation of both heart and lung to survive.
People can register to become living donors if they are between the ages of 18 and 60, and have never had diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, kidney disease or heart disease. In 1994, Donna Luebke of Montville Township, Ohio, met those requirements and decided to donate her left kidney to her ailing older sister. Donors are often closely related to their recipients because the body will reject a new organ unless the two people’s blood types match. Doctors took the kidney from Luebke’s side through a 12-inch incision, and her sister soon recovered thanks to the new organ. After the operation, Donna Luebke worked hard for six months to return to her pre-surgery condition. She slowly built up her strength from simply taking a shower to strolling around the block to taking three-mile walks. Today she has emerged as a major advocate for the rights and support of living donors.
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