by Elmer Huerta, M.D., AARP VIVA, August 2006
The first human organ transplanted was a kidney in 1954 in the United States. Dr. Joseph Murray transplanted the kidney of a twin into the other twin and, given the genetic equality of the twins, there was no rejection. Since that first attempt, thousands of organs have been transplanted around the world and due to great progress in operating techniques and the discovery of effective medicines to control rejection, the odds of survival for a person who has received an organ transplant are greater every day.
Today, the organs that can be transplanted are the heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, liver, and the small intestine. Of those organs, a kidney and part of a liver can be donated by a live person. The tissues that can be transplanted are corneas, skin, bone, tendons, bone marrow, and heart valves. Unlike organs, tissue (with the exception of bone marrow) can be donated up to 24 hours after death and can be stored for long periods of time.
With the enormous advances achieved in the practice of transplants, one could think that thousands of people with serious illnesses are enjoying a better quality of life after a transplant. Sadly, this is not true. Today, almost 100,000 people are waiting for a transplant, but only 74 transplants are performed each day. That low number of transplants means that 18 people die every day in the United States due to the lack of a donated organ.
Analyzing what happens in the Hispanic population, about 15,000 Latinos are waiting for an organ transplant (about 15 percent of the waiting list). The vast majority of those (77 percent) are waiting for a kidney transplant. On the other hand, in 2005 only 1,029 deceased organ donors were Hispanic. In that same year, only 880 Hispanics donated an organ while alive. In other words, in the general population and especially in the Hispanic population, the demand for organs is much greater than the supply.
The matter is worse when surveys on public attitudes with respect to organ donation are analyzed. For example, 15 percent of Hispanics are opposed to organ donation, compared to just 5 percent of the Caucasian population, and more Hispanics than Caucasians said their reason for not wanting to be an organ donor is their wish to be buried “intact.” On the other hand, only 77 percent of Hispanics are willing to receive a transplant, compared with 81 percent of Caucasians. Lastly, while 54 percent of Caucasians think that their families agree with organ donation, only 36 percent of Hispanics think the same.
Myths and Truths
Without a doubt, the lack of serious and reliable information contributes to the fact that the Hispanic population does not yet give the gift of life to a brother or sister who needs it. These are some of the most common myths about organ donation:
The doctors will not try to save my life if they know I am a donor.
The truth is that the medical teams that try to save lives are different from the ones that do transplants. The transplant surgeons are called only after all resources to save the life of the patient have been exhausted.
A patient can recover from brain death.
Patients can recover from a coma, but not brain death. Coma is different than brain death.
Hispanics do not want to donate because they believe the distribution of organs discriminates by race.
The organs are distributed according to blood and tissue type. On the other hand, it is more probable that a person could find a suitable donor among people of his or her own race.
I am too old to donate my organs and tissue.
People of any age can donate organs and tissue. The doctors will decide if your organs are suitable to be transplanted.
If I become a donor, my family will be charged money.
The costs of donating are not the responsibility of the donors.
Donation will disfigure my body after death.
The organs and tissue are extracted with the same surgical techniques used on a live person, which includes suturing the cuts made to extract the organs.
Donated organs are sold with enormous profits for the doctors.
Trading in organs is a federal crime, punishable by jail time and fines.
Donating bone marrow is very painful.
Donors do not feel pain because anesthesia is used. But they may experience soreness and/or stiffness for a week or so after donating.
In my profession as a doctor and communicator, I have never encountered a more human and emotional moment than when a donor (or his or her family) comes together with the organ recipient in the same room. All the enormity of the altruism and the solidarity with people flourishes in that moment and the true essence of humanity can be felt in the air.
Become a donor. Give yourself the chance to give the gift of life and to continue living in another body.
Dr. Huerta will read and respond to selected questions from AARP Segunda Juventud readers in an upcoming Web-exclusive column. Submit your own health question now.
The content on this website is intended solely for educational and informational purposes and should not be relied upon as medical advice or as a substitution for professional medical services. Medical decisions should be made in consultation with your qualified health care provider who may recommend variations in treatment based on individual facts and circumstances.
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