Alaska leads the nation in the rate of families who grant consent for organ donation, with 76 percent of those who are contacted agreeing to organ and tissue donation.
That's according to Erin Hall Meade, community development coordinator for Life Alaska, the organization that coordinates the state's organ and tissue donation program.
"We think that's an incredible number," Meade told the Kenai Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. "I think that's a very Alaska mind-set. Everybody here helps everybody else."
Despite Alaska's high rate of consent, Meade said most people currently are not registered with Life Alaska's database. That's because until 2001, people could sign up as donors at the Division of Motor Vehicles, but no database was kept on who had signed up.
"They didn't keep any records," she said.
However, since 2001, Life Alaska has been updating the database and more than 40,000 Alaskans now are registered.
"We can actively look that person up on the database and say, 'yep, they wanted to be a donor,'" Meade said.
You don't have to be on the database to be an organ or tissue donor, Meade said, but it helps. Especially when it comes time for Life Alaska to contact family members, it's nice to have a record of the deceased person's wishes. Often times, Meade said families are ill-prepared to make such a difficult decision during a very stressful time.
"If you haven't told your family what your wishes are, that's just one more decision they have to make," she said.
Even if a person is on the registry, Meade said Life Alaska still asks for the family's consent. Although they don't have to, she said it's just one way to make the process run more smoothly for everyone involved.
"In Alaska, we ask the family," she said. "It's not a law, it's just the way we work."
Meade stressed the importance of organ and tissue donation by citing numerous facts relating to how many lives are saved each year because of recovered organs.
She said there are between 20,000 and 25,000 organ transplants and 800,000 tissue transplants each year in the United States. Over the past 10 years, 296 Alaskans have received organs, while another 4,100 received tissue donations.
Having a high rate of consent is especially important, she said, because as many as 17 people die each day while waiting for vital transplants.
"One organ donor can save the lives of six other people. One tissue donor can enhance the lives of 50," she said. "You can help 50 other people on the way out. That's amazing."
She also tried to clear up some misconceptions people may have about organ donation. For example, she said, people often are under the impression that the body will be disfigured by the process. Not true, she said. Also not true is the urban myth that people have been abducted and had organs taken from their body while still alive, only to wake up in a seedy motel bathtub -- minus a vital organ.
"If that happened, you'd be dead," she said.
In the end, organ donation is a highly personal choice, Meade said, and may not be for everyone. But the important thing is to communicate your wishes with family members so they're aware of your choice.
"If you don't want to be a donor, that's OK," she said. "But if you make the decision, it's very important to tell your family what the decision is."
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