Organ & Tissue Donation
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SINGING: As seasons come and go and I’m weary from the change.
SUSAN DENTZER: A recent service at a church in Washington, D.C., honored the families of people who’d died and donated their organs to others.
SINGING: And I will light a candle.
SUSAN DENTZER: On hand to thank many of the still-grieving families was the nation’s Deputy Surgeon General, Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: Today we celebrate the memory of our loved ones. We remember sometimes in sadness, and we rejoice at their legacy: The gift of life.
SUSAN DENTZER: As the nation’s second-highest public health official and a veteran of 30 years with the Public Health Service, Moritsugu is helping to lead a campaign to increase organ and tissue donation. Although nearly 23,000 organ transplants were performed last year, the need is far greater.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: There are 75,000 people on a waiting list, on the national waiting list for a solid organ alone, and there are thousands more waiting for bone marrow and corneas and other tissue.
SUSAN DENTZER: In fact, demand for transplants is rising, in part because the operations are more successful than ever. Dr. Jimmy Light is a transplant surgeon.
DR. JIMMY LIGHT, Washington Hospital Center: The good news is that the advances in transplantation have been such that it works almost every time today. And that’s a result of some improvements in surgery and technique, but primarily because of improved anti-rejection medications.
SUSAN DENTZER: Someday, organs and tissues for transplant may be grown in animals or in a lab. But for now, the only source is human donors– either living donors, such as those who contribute a kidney to a relative, or deceased donors who’ve suffered brain death. Last year there were just 6,000 of these deceased organ donors, while another 9,000 who suffered brain death could have donated organs and tissues, but didn’t.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: Every day before we go to sleep, 15 people die waiting for a transplant that doesn’t come in time.
SUSAN DENTZER: Moritsugu says increasing donation rates would eliminate the transplant waiting list; it would also forestall the fights that have taken place in recent years over how to distribute donated organs. Under federal rules adopted two years ago, organs generally go to the sickest patients on transplant waiting lists. But some states and medical centers have resisted this system, since it often means that organs donated in one state are taken to another. Today Moritsugu’s new boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced a broad initiative to boost transplants, including a model organ donor card and new efforts to sign up donors at U.S. workplaces.
TOMMY THOMPSON: It is an issue that is so simple and yet so important. As one woman said, why put organs in the ground when they can save someone’s life? Why hesitate to donate, when no one hesitates to receive? One organ and tissue donor can actually help up to 50 people.
SUSAN DENTZER: Aside from Moritsugu’s official interest in organ and tissue donation, he has a deep personal concern.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: She was a wonderful person, a wonderful friend, a wonderful wife.
SUSAN DENTZER: Moritsugu’s wife, Donna, was seriously injured in a car accident eight years ago. Taken to the hospital, she was subsequently declared brain- dead.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: The neurosurgeon walked out of the room with me and asked me what I wanted to do, and it was at that point that I recalled the conversation that Donna and I had had about wanting to be organ and tissue donors.
SUSAN DENTZER: Moritsugu decided to go ahead and donate Donna’s tissues and organs. At least seven people benefited from her heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, and corneas. Such an episode could have such an episode could have been enough to make Moritsugu a fervent advocate of organ and tissue donation, but fate struck again four years later when his daughter Vicki was struck by a car while crossing the street. Moritsugu was overwhelmed when Vicki died at age 22.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: The total loss of any ground under you, and trying to find some sense of stability at a time where here again is grief and tragedy reprised, or then trying to find the energy to consider the decision – knowing that there’s nothing more that you can do or anyone else can do to save your daughter’s life.
SUSAN DENTZER: Amid the anguish, Moritsugu and his family made that decision: To donate Vicki’s organs and tissues as well.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: Shortly after, while we were still in the hospital, my older daughter, Erica, came up to me and said, “Dad, you know, we did the right thing.” “Why, Erica?” Because unbeknownst to me, my two daughters, they had talked about this themselves, and they had decided that they wanted to become organ and tissue donors when they died.
SUSAN DENTZER: As with Donna Moritsugu’s organs and tissues, many others benefited from Vicki’s.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: I think of it in terms of a pebble that’s thrown into a pond. The ripples of life just go on out and continue to expand.
SUSAN DENTZER: To get a sense of just how far the ripples extend, we asked if we could interview someone who had received organs from Moritsugu’s family members. Moritsugu suggested the widow of the man who’d received his wife’s heart, with whom his family had been corresponding for several years. The woman, Carol Thomka, met Moritsugu in his office.
CAROL THOMKA: I can’t believe this.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: God, this is fabulous.
SUSAN DENTZER: Thomka’s husband, hank, a retired police officer living in Florida, suffered for years from coronary artery and congestive heart disease. Placed on a transplant waiting list, he nearly died before receiving Donna’s heart in 1992.
CAROL THOMKA: He felt a closeness to her that he couldn’t explain but he definitely did. She was very much a part of him. We have her picture along with the rest of the family pictures.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: Oh, that’s wonderful.
CAROL THOMKA: It’s still there, and it always will be.
SUSAN DENTZER: Thomka lived another seven years after the operation, and even went back to work as a private detective. He died in 1999 of an unrelated condition. His donated heart was doing just fine.
CAROL THOMKA: He got to see not only his grandson, but his granddaughters from Chicago as well, who were little at the time. And he got to see them grow up quite a bit over those years.
SUSAN DENTZER: Armed with knowledge gained from his own experience, Moritsugu now devotes much of his time to explaining how people can become organ donors. One way is by indicating one’s willingness on a driver’s license or donor card. But Moritsugu cautions that may not be enough.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: It’s important for those individuals, for those of us who make that decision one way or the other, to communicate that decision to our next of kin, because, very frankly, if we’re in the emergency room, our driver’s license may be someplace else.
SUSAN DENTZER: Moritsugu is also working to clear up some of the myths around organ donation. He frequently teams up with Lisa Kory, whom he married five years ago. She’s a former transplant nurse who now heads a nonprofit organization for organ donors, recipients, and their families. Kory says donor families typically have the same questions.
LISA KORY: Will he really be dead before they recover the organs? How do we know that? Will we still be able to have an open-casket funeral? What will happen? What will it look like? How will he be?
SUSAN DENTZER: The people best positioned to answer such questions are those like Moritsugu, who’ve been through the experience. One is Maryland resident Gerard Huffman III. Together with his mother and sisters, he decided to donate his 67-year-old’s father’s kidneys after he suffered an aneurysm ten years ago. Huffman says the hospital where his father died handled the process with compassion.
GERALD HUFFMAN III: They explained the procedure to us, basically telling us that there was no difference between the harvesting of the organs and a regular operation. All of the necessary precautions and procedures would be followed, as if my father was alive.
COORDINATOR: This is Bonnie from Maryland.
SUSAN DENTZER: At that recent church service in Washington, Marilyn Essex got her first chance to tell Huffman and his family in person just how grateful she was.
MARILYN ESSEX: We thank you very much.
WOMAN: Thank you.
MAN: Thank you.
MARILYN ESSEX: Thank you for your wonderful gift.
SUSAN DENTZER: Essex has hereditary kidney disease and was on dialysis for nearly a year before receiving Gerard Huffman, Sr.’s kidney.
MARILYN ESSEX: I think about him every day.
FAMILY MEMBER: Kind of have to. ( Laughter )
MARILYN ESSEX: I have him… His picture with my family.
SUSAN DENTZER: Later, during the church service, the Huffmans were among the donor families honored. As pictures of their loved ones flashed overhead, Moritsugu and others offered praise for the departed.
DR. KENNETH MORITSUGU: They are the heroes. They did the right thing. They have made a difference.
MAN SINGING: I can count on God.
SUSAN DENTZER: As part of the new government initiative to boost organ donation, plans are also in the works for a new national medal to honor donors’ families.