5 Things You Need to Know About Organ Donation

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Physician Mark Laftavii
Physician Mark Laftavii

In the United States, the most commonly transplanted organs are the kidney, liver, heart and lungs. On any given day there are about 75,000 people on the active waiting list for organs, but only about 8,000 deceased organ donors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have come a long way when it comes to successful organ transplants,” said  physician Mark Laftavi, professor of surgery and interim chief of transplant services at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.

Laftavi explains five things people should know about transplant.

1. Age is not a factor

In many aspects of life, age is just a number and that includes being a donor. Your biological age does not deter you from giving an organ. It is more the quality of your age.

“We have some people who are 60 years old and their health are better than people in their 40’s. But then you have people in their 60’s whose health is closer to someone near the age of 80,” said Laftavi. “Age is no longer the No. 1 factor.”

He said the more important factor is the diet and exercise habits of the individual. Those who maintain good overall health oftentimes have good overall organ function.

“You just have to make sure you are taking good care of yourself and then you can be a donor at various ages,” said Laftavi.

2. Cost

While the cost of a transplant can be high, much of it can be picked up depending on the insurance you have. In addition, because transplants include tests, medications and follow-up care after you leave the hospital, officials suggest asking your insurance company if the transplant center is in-network with the insurance company, if they have out-of-network benefits, what are co-pays for doctor visits, hospitalizations and medications and whether the insurance plan require prior authorization.

“We know that cost is always going to be a concern, which is why we focus on setting up each patient with a dedicated insurance social worker who can walk them through it,” said Laftavi. “Plus there are some pharmaceutical discounts that we are able to help people with the financial burden.”

3. Social support

Both receiving and donating an organ can have many psychological and emotional aspects. Even if the surgery goes well there can be extensive recovery time. That is why family support remains necessary.

“There may be some effects of any surgery or even the need for family members to help the person consistently remember to take their medications,” he added. “It is important that you have someone who can take care of you whether that is family, friends or even a neighbor. Society is like a wall and everyone of us are bricks, and if one of the bricks are not doing well, then the integrity of the wall is not as strong. We are not meant to do things alone.”

4. Transplants are safe

Laftavi said no one should have fear about a transplant. In cases like the kidney, a person can live with just one. He has even seen people who were born with just one kidney live long lives. Organ transplantation is often the only treatment for end stage organ failure, such as liver and heart failure. Although end stage renal disease patients can be treated through other renal replacement therapies, kidney transplantation is generally accepted as the best treatment both for quality of life and cost effectiveness. Kidney transplantation is by far the most frequently carried out transplantation globally.

“In the early days, we would experience 50% rejection rate with transplants and now we have a 95% success rate. It has been a remarkable achievement,” said Laftavi. “We know there is always fear about any kind of surgery but this really is a life saving procedure.”

5. You don’t have to be a family member to give a kidney

Though family members may have an increased chance of matching, it doesn’t stop there. Living donation can have better outcomes for those needing a kidney transplant. Friends or even strangers may be a match.

“There are a lot of myths about who can give a kidney donation and other transplants and we just want people to be educated about the process,” said Laftavi. “If you have any questions you should ask a physician to make sure that you understand everything involved.”

36,500 transplants in the U.S. in 2018, Here’s the breakdown by organ:

Kidney 21,167

Liver 8,250

Heart 3,408

Lung 2,530

Kidney / Pancreas 836

Pancreas 192

Intestine 104

Heart/Lung 32

Source: UNOS — United Network for Organ Sharing — a nonporfit agency, with data gathered in January 2019.