In a previous post, I discussed the steps we need to take to direct the distribution of our estates. But I did not discuss what we must do to distribute the gifts of life and wellness.
Once you leave this earth, you may still have an impact on it by letting a medical team harvest one or more of your organs or your tissue to save the lives of other human beings. I never really gave much thought to this until I was told that I might need a heart transplant. Now that I have lived with heart failure for a number of years now, I realized I needed to ask the questions: Where does the organ come from when your own organ is in failure and there needs to be a transplant? What are the chances of survival?
Of course the answer to the first question is that there are some kind people who have the foresight to sign up as organ donors. Their generosity warms my spirit. But I also have to admit that when I first thought about a heart transplant, it was an eerie, somber concept to consider. It meant that if I needed a heart transplant, the donor would be someone who had died, likely before his or her time. On the one hand, I should be rejoicing for the gift of life. On the other hand, it was sobering to know that this would mean that others were mourning the person whose life was cut short.
Fortunately for me, I have not had to benefit from the selfless sacrifice of someone who at one time had been a vital force on this earth. But having been made to consider the possibility of a transplant, it also made me stop and think. I began to mull over whether I should consider becoming an organ donor for other people who at some point down the road might be in desperate need of the gift of life or wellness.
One question that immediately came to mind was whether I would even be an eligible candidate to be an organ donor. I mean, my heart has valves that are damaged, and it is not pumping effectively. I can’t imagine that there would be a person who would benefit from getting my heart when I leave this earth. But I have other organs, eyes, tissues, and who knows what else, that at some point in time might be useful to another person. Did the fact that I have heart failure impact my eligibility to donate body parts other than my heart?
The Department of Health and Human Services manages a website that discusses organ donation. It can be found at www.organdonor.gov. One of the frequently asked questions on the site addresses this concern. The question is: What if I have a health condition? Here is the answer: Even with an illness or a health condition, you may be able to donate your organs and/or tissues upon death. If the situation arises upon death, doctors will examine your organs and determine whether they are suitable for donation. Only few conditions would absolutely prevent a person from becoming a donor—such as active cancer or a systemic infection.
I found that the organization that manages organ transplants under contract for the federal government is located just down the road from me in Richmond, Virginia. It is the United Network for Organ Sharing, also known as UNOS. UNOS has managed this program under contract to the government since 1986. While the number can fluctuate each day, right now the UNOS website says that there are over 116,000 people waiting for a lifesaving transplant and the demand definitely exceeds the supply.
The first heart transplant occurred in 1968. So transplants have been taking place for almost 50 years.
In terms of the chances of surviving the procedure, the Mayo Clinic says that while a heart transplant is a major operation, the chance of survival is good with the appropriate follow-up care. What this means to me is that although a heart transplant is still a monumental event for the patient, in the course of the medical world, it would seem that this has become a more common and successful procedure. There could be even more successes if more people signed up to be heart organ donors.
In light of what I have found in my research, I plan to pursue being a donor, understanding of course that my heart is definitely not a candidate. But when you look at all the organs, tissues, eye parts, etc. that are eligible for donation in a person’s body, I have to believe that a number of mine would be acceptable.
I have also found some inspiring stories of organ donation. Take the case of Steve Nugent. I heard about Steve Nugent during the week before the Marine Corps Marathon. It turns out that Steve used to be a marathon runner, maybe about 30 years ago. Sometime after his marathon runs, he was diagnosed with liver disease and his liver was damaged.
Steve was at the point that he was saying goodbye to family members when the call came through that there was a liver for him. After the transplant and recovery, Steve made the decision to run the 2017 Marine Corps Marathon. In an interview with CBS news, Steve Nugent said: "I always say to myself, that person gave me their liver, but I'm going to give them my heart for the rest of my life."
This is the reason that Steve ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC in 2017. He wore a bright orange shirt that said "I'm running because of an organ donor" on the front and has his transplant date on the back: June 17, 2016. For the rest of his life, he says he will be a living, breathing, running testimony, encouraging others to be a donor.
I also encourage you to take a look at the UNOS website, especially the stories of donors and donees. When I last looked at the site, there was a short video entitled “Bucket List”. It told the story of a man who looked to be my age who had undergone a heart transplant. He took the bucket list of the young man whose heart he had been given, and he performed each of the items on the bucket list. It is a very heart-warming video, and the end scene brought tears to my eyes.
Okay, I realize that commercials have been known to bring tears to my eyes, because I am just so sensitive. But truly, I defy anyone to view this video and not have some tears falling by the end. If this video doesn’t make us think twice about one of the best gifts we can give to our fellow humans, I’m not sure what will.
If you look at the webpage on organ donations for the Department at Health and Human Services, or the website for UNOS, you will see a number of other stories from both organ recipients and organ donors. They are so touching and inspirational that any hesitation I have as I mull over organ donation seems to be insignificant. Of all the donations one could make in life, this would have a significant impact. When I think about it, it is no different in concept than giving items to the Goodwill. (Although I do admit, it isn’t as easy as dumping some corneas or lungs into a box and dropping them off at the Goodwill location in Arlington!)
When I was in the process of finalizing this blog post, I saw a commercial from the pharmaceutical industry. It featured a congestive heart failure patient who received a heart transplant and a researcher who works on anti-rejection drugs. In his remarks, the researcher said that because of these drugs and other advances, a heart transplant has gone from a heart saving process to a heart giving process. He said that he is impressed by the fortitude of the patients.
The patient talks about how shocking it was to receive a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, and that the condition caused her to give up some of the things that she loved doing. But she also said that she never thought she was going to die. In watching her speak, her commitment to living seems to be the type of fortitude the researcher admired. The one comment that was the most poignant was when the patient said that the donor’s mother told her: You were meant to carry his story.
I still would prefer to finish out a long life with my own heart. But unlike three years ago, I can now I can think about the subject of heart transplantation without fear, and with much gratitude for the generous donors.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.