Alaskans generous about organ donation

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Kelly Gibson lay dead at the hospital after a snowmachining accident. Even though her heart was still beating, her brain had shut down and there was no hope.

An organ donation coordinator pulled Kelly's parents into a tiny room outside the hospital's intentive care unit.

''They sat us down and started asking us which organs and tissue we were willing to donate,'' said Kelly's father, Mike Gibson. ''I understand they can't put it off, but it was hard.''

Kelly had made her wishes known. She had an organ donor sticker on her driver's license, but her family needed to give final consent.

Organ donations are common in Alaska compared to the rest of the nation, according to Jens Saakvitne, director of Life Alaska, the state's Anchorage-based organ clearinghouse.

About 65 percent of people in Alaska who die that way have their organs donated. Add tissue donors and the number increases to 75 percent.

The national average for organ and tissue donors together is 56 to 60 percent.

Two people, Gibson and 17-year-old Zack Hansen, died of head injuries at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital in a month's time recently and their organs went to people Outside in need.

Hansen died in a snowboarding accident Dec. 18 and his organs helped as many as five people.

''Zack saved lives. That makes a difference,'' said Zack's father, Tom Hansen.

By law, hospitals must notify their organ donation coordinators about every death. In turn, the coordinators present the option of organ and tissue donation to families of people who have died.

Alaska had 20 organ donors for the year 2000 and about 13 times that in tissue donors.

For organs, surgeons come to Alaska most often from Seattle, Portland or Spokane but can come from as far away as New York if a recipient in Alaska's region cannot be found.

Alaskans have been donating organs and tissue through an out-of-state coordinating center since 1986. The in-state donor program, Life Alaska, was established in 1992 but it only expedited tissue donations. It took responsibility for organ donations in Alaska just last year.

All organ transplants are done out-of-state so it's a challenge to keep the donor's body functioning and put things in place for the surgery so the organs can be taken Outside.

''When the brain dies, all sorts of hormonal changes occur and the heart, along with all other organs, starts to slow down and die,'' Saakvitne said.

A donor's heart can be kept beating for up to 36 hours.

The hospital verifies the donor's blood type and checks the condition of the organs. Then coordinators get a list of recipients and call their surgeons to find a match.

After the matches are found, surgical teams' flights are coordinated.

Organs must be harvested in a certain order. The heart and lungs need blood pumping through them within four to six hours of being removed. Kidneys can last up to two days.

''That surgery has to work like clockwork,'' said Kelly Woolcott, a Life Alaska coordinator in Anchorage.

Organ donors are cared for in the hospital's intensive care unit and are the most critical patient for an ICU nurse, who is working against the brain to keep the lungs breathing and the heart beating.

The surgery to retrieve the organs lasts four hours. The heart and lung surgeons scrub in first. They'll put loose ties around certain blood vessels, then take an hour or so break so the liver and kidney teams, and possibly a surgeon there for the pancreas, can do the same.

The surgeons then gather, and the body is flushed with a special fluid that stops the heart, washes the blood out of the organs and preserves them. At that point, the heart and lung surgeons will take out their respective parts and put them in triplicate sterile bags that are then placed into a cooler of ice.

Before the transplant doctors even leave Fairbanks, recipients are undergoing surgery on the other end.

''When they walk or run into that operating room, let's say in Seattle, the other team has already removed the recipient's old heart,'' Saakvitne said. ''So there's a period of time that person does not have a heart.''

That patient is put on a heart and lung machine until the new heart is put in.

Most of Zack Hansen's organs went to people in Washington state, but one of his kidneys went to a woman in New York. His liver saved a 36-year-old married woman; his heart a 60-year-old rancher with adult children. Both his lungs went to 62-year-old women, one who now no longer needs oxygen support to breathe.

''We were worried. We were told it might not work,'' said Zack's father. ''That's the only thing that's helping us is knowing that something good is coming out of this.''

The Gibson family requested that the information on who received Kelly Gibson's organs, and which ones, be kept private.

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