Organ Donation


When Pat Spurgeon’s kidney fails in D TOUR, he searches for a suitable organ donor while administering his own dialysis treatments. As Dr. Glenn Chertow explains in the film, “Many people survive for 20, 25, even 30 or more years on dialysis, but unfortunately there are many people who don't survive a year. So more people actually die waiting for a kidney transplant than receive kidney transplants each year.”

Finding a suitable donor is not easy. As of September 2009, there were 103,456 people in the United States on the waiting list for an organ transplant, with 81,150 of these waiting for a kidney. The wait list for an organ can be years long. As Megan Shaughnessy of the California Transplant Donor Network says in D TOUR, “The only way that you can go right to the top of the list as a kidney recipient is to basically hit the transplant lottery and be a perfect match with a donor somewhere out there.”

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Watch an organ donation PSA with Independent Lens host Maggie Gyllenhaal

Organ Matching and Transplant

In 1984, Congress passed the National Organ Transplant Act, making the selling of human organs illegal and creating the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which regulates organ allocation and works to increase the supply of transplant organs. But factors such as blood and tissue type, the size of the donated organ and the distance between the donor and the potential transplant all affect the amount of time a patient might spend on the waiting list.

Jill Nielsen-Ferrell stands smiling to someone off-camera. Her hair is in a bun and she is wearing a burgundy ruffled blazer with a leather purse strap visible over he shoulder.

The only legal method for shortening the wait for an organ transplant in the U.S. is to find a living donor, who must be a viable match. The United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages the federal system of organ donation, has started to administer a national network of paired donations. A living donor and recipient pair, often friends or relatives who are not a viable match, can then be paired with another incompatible donor and recipient pair. The first pair’s donor can give an organ to the second pair’s recipient, and vice versa. One proposed policy for increasing the number of available transplant organs is the legalization of organ sales, an idea rife with ethical controversies and potential exploitation.

In 2008, there were 27,963 organ transplants made in the U.S., with the majority of them coming from deceased donors. About 77 people in the U.S. receive an organ transplant each day. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, all people can consider themselves potential tissue and organ donors, regardless of their age. In the U.S., living donations can be arranged through a transplant center. Potential donors must first be physically and psychologically evaluated by medical professionals.

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