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Oklahoma breaks record for organ donations in 2018

Jeff Orlowski, president and CEO of LifeShare Oklahoma, shown at company headquarters last week with a pod used to preserve kidneys removed for donations. [Photo by Meg Wingerter, The Oklahoman]

Jeff Orlowski, president and CEO of LifeShare Oklahoma, shown at company headquarters last week with a pod used to preserve kidneys removed for donations. [Photo by Meg Wingerter, The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma City — The pain of 188 Oklahoma families gave a new chapter in life to 487 others as the state had another record year for organ donations.

The number of deceased donors in Oklahoma has more than doubled since 2013, and the number of recipients has come close to doubling, according to LifeShare Oklahoma, which promotes organ donations and handles the arrangements when a person eligible to be a donor dies. Organ donations reached a new high in Oklahoma last year.

Despite the increase in transplants, 696 people in Oklahoma were waiting for organs as of Monday, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the transplant system at the national level. About 70 percent need a kidney.

On an average day, 22 people around the country die while waiting for a transplant, and the only way to change that is to increase the supply of donated organs, said Jeff Orlowski, president and CEO of LifeShare Oklahoma, a nonprofit.

“Some of it's technical, and some of it's people,” he said.

Relatively few people can be organ donors. A donor must be brain-dead, meaning the brain is damaged to the point that it no longer tells the heart and lungs to work, and a ventilator must keep the blood flowing to the organs until they are removed.

Building relationships with a broader group of hospitals was important to increasing the supply of organs, Orlowski said. Smaller hospitals may have only one patient a year who dies in a way that allows for organ donation, but if they have a relationship with LifeShare, they're more likely to think to call for a transplant team to evaluate the patient, he said. About 30 percent of organs transplanted in Oklahoma now come from smaller hospitals, up from 10 percent in 2012.

Tech updates

Technology also has helped to increase the number of transplants. A few years ago, LifeShare bought several small pods that pump fluids through kidneys, better mimicking conditions inside the body, Orlowski said. The set-up staves off deterioration of the kidney, and also allows the transplant team to test how well it is functioning. Less-than-ideal kidneys still can be used, but they should go to a patient who is more medically stable, he said.

Broadening the base of people considered as donors also has helped increase transplants. Traditionally, transplant teams didn't recover organs from donors who were older or had chronic health conditions, but that's changed, Orlowski said. For example, transplant teams used to automatically reject kidneys from donors who had high blood pressure, but now they check if the kidney is healthy enough to use, he said.

“Donors who were not considered five or 10 or 15 years ago can now be considered,” he said. “We have a lot more donors who, maybe they're in renal failure, but their liver's fine, or they're in liver failure, but their heart's fine.”

Some people don't sign up as donors because they think they aren't healthy enough to give organs, but Orlowski encouraged anyone who was interested to register. Even if a person's organs aren't healthy enough to transplant, they still could give corneas to help blind patients or skin for people with severe burns, he said.

“It's not a black and white thing,” he said.

The Oklahoma public generally is open to the idea of organ donation, but some people never discuss their willingness with family members, which can force tough conversations following a fatal accident, he said.

“That's the biggest single factor in everything that we do, that people are willing to help their fellow man,” he said. “The biggest way that this breaks down is people don't register and they don't communicate to their family.”

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›