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Donated Organs: Gifts of Life

Campaign seeks to highlight desperate need for more donations

WEDNESDAY, April 9, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The 18 months Thom Cheadle spent waiting for a kidney was the worst time of his life.

He couldn't eat, and he couldn't sleep. Doctors diagnosed him as clinically depressed. So he turned to meditation to help him accept his plight.

"It made me calmer, helped me deal with the reality that I might not live through this," says the resident of Vancouver, Wash.

More than 80,600 Americans are now walking the path that Cheadle trod 10 years ago, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a non-profit, scientific and educational organization that administers the nation's only Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

They are on the waiting list for an organ -- a liver, a heart, most likely a kidney -- that will save their lives. More than 6,000 will die this year waiting for that organ. That's 16 people a day.

April is National Donate Life Month, a time that health officials hope will raise public awareness of the critical need for organ, tissue, marrow and blood donations.

In past years, the campaign was limited to the third week of April. However, Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, expanded the effort to a month-long observance to underscore his commitment to donations. The month also gives donation and transplant organizations more time to sponsor activities in their communities.

More than 23,000 U.S. patients received an organ transplant in 2001, 17,000 from deceased donors and another 6,500 from living donors.

Most people waiting for an organ are likely waiting for a kidney, says Bob Spieldenner, spokesman for the Coalition on Donation, a non-profit alliance of organ donation groups.

Of the 78,265 people waiting for an organ in 2001, 48,405 of them -- 61 percent -- were waiting for a kidney, according to an annual survey by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, in collaboration with the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

About 18,173 people, or 23 percent, are waiting for a liver, the report says.

It's getting tougher and tougher to find healthy organs for people, despite a 78 percent increase in the total number of organ donors between 1992 and 2001. Spieldenner says more people are requesting transplants as the procedures and surgeries become safer and more common. "It's a lack of supply all across the board," he says.

There was also a nearly across-the board increase from 2000 to 2001 in the number of people waiting for transplants, the report says. Only the waiting list for heart transplants decreased, and then only by 0.3 percent.

People waiting for kidneys increased 7.6 percent, while people waiting for livers increased 11.8 percent, the report says.

There have been no major advances in transplant medicine in recent years, Spieldenner says, so groups have taken a two-pronged approach to tackling the growing waiting list for organs.

Transplant advocates continue to use events like National Donate Life Month to promote organ donation, Spieldenner says.

His group currently has a campaign geared toward blacks to increase their organ donations.

Blacks represent only 12 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise 35 percent of the waiting list for kidneys. Spieldenner says this is because they tend to suffer more from high blood pressure and diabetes.

Since genetic matching is used for kidney donors, the ideal kidney transplant for a black would come from a black donor, he says. "It's crucial that we have more people from ethnic groups donating organs, to increase the chances for successful transplants," he says.

Meanwhile, doctors are trying to prolong patients' lives by transplanting organs that were previously considered not prime for transplantation, he says.

The ideal deceased organ donor is a younger person who dies from traumatic head injury that is isolated to the brain and leaves the other organs intact. Now, particularly with kidney transplants, doctors are beginning to consider transplants from older donors or people who died in ways that were not ideal, but left the organ functioning well.

Cheadle needed his kidney because of an autoimmune disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis that had destroyed his own.

When he heard that a compatible kidney was available, Cheadle felt "absolute terror and absolute elation all at once."

"I was terrified that it wouldn't work, because you hear so many stories," he says.

The surgery went well, but then doctors discovered that Cheadle's new kidney wasn't working.

"It basically went to sleep, while waiting for the transplant," he says. After three very tense days, the kidney kicked in.

Cheadle says there isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't think of his donor, a 23-year-old woman who died in a Dallas trauma center.

"I get up every morning and I thank God, I thank my wife and I thank my donor for this gift of life," he says. "Every day is a gift."

More information

To learn more about organ donation, visit the Coalition on Donation or the Partnership for Organ Donation.

SOURCES: Thom Cheadle, organ recipient, Vancouver, Wash.; Bob Spieldenner, spokesman, Coalition on Donation, Richmond, Va.
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