A Noble Gift: Organ Donation Awareness

As health and wellbeing remain top of mind during the pandemic, it seems this interest has driven our collective inclination to do good in the lives of others. At Penn Highlands, we’re grateful that our recent requests for blood donations have been met with enthusiastic response from healthy individuals in our communities (while patients’ blood needs remain ongoing). Supporters across our region have also donated to our Annual Giving Campaign, which will conclude in mid-February, in deeply meaningful ways.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, CORE—the Center for Organ Recovery and Education—reported that 2020 “was the second record-breaking year in a row for … organ, tissue and cornea donation in western Pennsylvania.” The organization stated that they facilitated 792 transplants for the year in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which marked a 20-percent increase over 2019—that was 43 percent more heart transplants, 39 percent more liver transplants, and 15 percent more kidney transplants than the prior year.

This kind of altruism in our area needs continued encouragement, especially because the COVID-19 pandemic caused many Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles branches to close for part of 2020, which lessened the opportunity for individuals to register their vehicles in the process that also enables them to register as organ donors. With 110,000 Americans needing organ donations and a new patient being added every 10 minutes to the national transplant waiting list—while only half of Pennsylvanians volunteer as organ donors—it’s critical for individuals to understand what their kindness can mean to another person. “To some recipients, they’re just so blessed to be able to continue with their lives,” says Debra Thomas, RN, BSN, MHA and chief nursing officer at Penn Highlands Brookville and PH Clearfield. “The numbers are astronomical—you don’t realize how many people are in need of organ donations until you look at the numbers.”

Thomas understands that need both professionally and personally. Several years ago, she was involved with the Penn Highlands CORE support group, and she’s also the aunt of Seth Astorino, a young man who underwent a living-donor kidney transplant in 2015 when his other aunt, MaryLou, provided him with her own kidney. In 2017, Astorino, who is a certified registered nurse practitioner, reflected on his experience as a recipient: “As a living donor, not only saved my life, but the cadaver kidney I would have gotten went to another patient on the list. In my eyes, she saved that person, too.”

Indeed a donor can have more significance than they might first realize, says Rhonda Chilson, RN, Penn Highlands Elk’s quality director and organ donation representative to the Hospitals and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania. “At Penn Highlands Elk, we just recently had a donor whose donation benefited 20 recipients,” Chilson shares. “We all need to think about what impact registering can have.”

With Pennsylvania Donor Day having taken place earlier this month and National Donor Day approaching on February 14 (because what says love more than giving life?), we’re sharing some insights from CORE.org to enlighten all of us about common beliefs related to organ donation:

  • While some people might believe becoming a registered organ donor means medical personnel won’t work hard to save their life in the case of an accident, CORE.org states: “The number-one priority is to save every life. Paramedics, nurses and doctors will do EVERYTHING possible to save your life. CORE is only notified after all life-saving efforts have failed.”
  • For anyone concerned that their funeral plans, such an as open casket, may be affected following organ donation, CORE.org assures us: “Organ and tissue donation will not interfere with traditional funeral arrangements such as an open casket. Doctors maintain the utmost respect for the donor and organs are removed in a routine operation similar to other types of surgeries.”
  • For any organ or tissue donor who prefers to remain anonymous, CORE.org explains that “a patient’s privacy is maintained for both donor families and recipients”—that is unless the family of the donor would like their loved one’s identity to be released to the recipient.
  • CORE.org also makes clear that factors like race, gender, or socioeconomics do not impact recipient priority. “A national computer network, maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), matches organs according to height, weight and blood type, followed by medical urgency and then time accrued on the waiting list. Age, race, gender, religious affiliation or financial status are not factors that determine who receives a transplant.”

To easily register as an organ donor, visit www.CORE.org/register. And to learn how you can support patient care in our area, please visit us at www.phhealthcare.org/donate.