Difference between life, death could be in organ donations

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2003

Erin Hall Meade has two compelling reasons why people should agree to become organ and tissue donors: her feet.

After suffering severe injuries to her lower legs in an airplane crash a couple years ago, the community development coordinator for the Life Alaska tissue and organ donor program was told there was a good chance she'd never walk again. Doctors gave her a grim choice: either spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair or hobble around on unreliable artificial ankles.

Meade didn't like those options too much. Instead, she took the initiative to seek out other opinions. As luck would have it, a connection she had with doctors at the University of California at San Diego led her to seek out a new and groundbreaking joint replacement technique which uses actual human ankles in the transplant procedure. Although the technique was new, Meade saw it as her best chance to live a normal and active life.

As she told the Kenai Chamber of Commerce Wednesday afternoon, "I didn't like the choices they gave me."

On Oct. 8, 2002, Meade became the 41st person in the world to undergo a living ankle replacement transplant. Wednesday, she strode confidently to the podium at Paradisos restaurant to discuss the importance of organ and tissue donation.

The statistics paint a telling portrait.

At any given moment, 82,000 Americans are waiting anxiously to learn if they'll be next in line to receive a life-saving transplant. On average, half of them will die before a transplant becomes available.

Although Alaska currently does not have a medical facility which performs transplants, 296 residents of this state were the recipients of donated organs in the past year. That's nearly 300 people more than the entire population of Seldovia who were given a second chance at life because of the generosity of people who are no longer with us.

Organ donation is often a grisly, uncomfortable topic for people to discuss. In order for a person's organs to be used in the donation process, only certain types of catastrophic brain injuries are usually acceptable. These injuries often come unexpectedly, and families of the deceased are thrown into a world of grief they're ill-prepared to deal with.

Although many people believe they're organ donors, it's not as simple as that. In Alaska, family consent is always sought before organs and tissue are taken from the body. If the family says no, the organs are not touched.

That means people must be clear about their intentions. Don't just assume that because you've signed up at the Division of Motor Vehicles that you'll automatically become an organ donor. Talk with your family, and let them know your wishes.

Two common misconceptions people have about the organ donation process is that the body will be desecrated after death or there will be a lengthy delay before the body is returned to the family. That's simply not true. The process takes only about 6 hours, and once done, the body is left without visible evidence that any procedure has taken place.

The benefits of organ and tissue donation are wide and varied. Body tissue can be used for such things as skin grafts, periodontal surgery and tendon replacement. Anyone who has undergone knee surgery that's more than a few of us has likely benefited from some form of tissue transplant.

Organs from a deceased donor can be used to save as many as 6 lives. The heart, kidneys, lungs and other organs are given daily to people who likely would die within weeks or days without a transplant.

All these are good arguments for becoming an organ donor.

But it's certainly not a choice anyone should have made for them. If you don't feel comfortable with the idea of organ and tissue donation, tell your family. If you do want to become a donor, tell them that. Whatever your choice, make it clear to those who will be in a position to carry out your wishes once you're gone.

And if you do decide to donate, feel proud in that decision. Even though you'll no longer walk the earth, someone like Erin Meade may be able to keep on walking because of you.

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