- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Deputy Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu years ago learned the hard way — a way he would not want others to share — about the benefits of organ donation. Eight years ago, his wife, Donna, dided in an automobile accident. Four years ago, their 22-year-old daughter, Vicky, died the same way.

Both women had expressed a wish to have their organs and tissues given to people on waiting lists for transplants that would prolong or save lives. Seven persons benefited as a result of his wife's decision.

Because of his wife's death, Dr. Moritsugu, an internist whose specialty is preventive health, is active in the effort to increase knowledge about organ donation and publicize the need for more people willing to be donors.

"Like pebbles thrown into a pond, the ripples of life expand," he was quoted as saying April 17 on PBS' "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," which featured his story. The segment showed him in an emotional moment greeting the wife of the man who had received Donna Moritsugu's heart. (The man died seven years after the transplant of an unrelated cause.)

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It wasn't entirely a coincidence that the segment aired on that date. April 17 also was the day Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson chose to announce what he called a "new organ donation initiative" based in part on his efforts from when he was governor of Wisconsin.

Components of the secretary's plan include passage of a 40-cent Organ and Tissue postage stamp similar to the Breast Cancer Research stamp and circulation of a model organ-and-tissue donor card that would make more explicit than most official driver's licenses the wishes of an organ-and-tissue donor. Two witnesses' names would be on the card ideally family members or others most likely to be contacted in an emergency to help ensure that the donor's wishes are carried out.

Along the lines of his state program, Mr. Thompson also has proposed creation of a national medal to honor the families of organ donors along with a model curriculum on donation for use in driver-education courses. He previously initiated a campaign called Workplace Partnership for Life to involve corporations in spreading awareness of the need for donors. He pledged that his office would develop materials for businesses joining the effort. General Motors, Verizon and Aetna are among those on the list. Among the latest to sign up is the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, 1.5 million strong, which has decided to attach a model organ-donation card to the back of each official membership card.

Mr. Thompson also has increased sums for evaluating strategies to increase donor numbers. Last year, organ donors nationally numbered more than 11,000, a combination of living donors and cadavers, according to figures from the United Network for Organ Sharing, which maintains an organ-transplant waiting list under contract with HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration.

• • •

Mr. Thompson first was shocked into awareness of the donor issue when a Wisconsin transplant surgeon who was a friend spoke of his despair over having lost a patient for lack of a suitable transplant organ. That is all it took for the energetic governor to move, and soon the medal program was in effect, says Camille Haney, special assistant to Mr. Thompson.

Though impressive in scope, his efforts are not unique. Individuals and organizations have been at work for many years to help make the need visible so many that there is an Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, based in Falls Church.

On a typical day, 15 persons in the United States die while waiting for an organ. Nearly 80,000 people are on a national waiting list 2,000 of them in the Washington area and 22,000 persons a year receive organs.

Only 50 percent of would-be donors end up contributing organs, however, either because family members object or because the condition of the organ is not good enough. That's according to the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium, the federally mandated center that works with seven local hospitals to coordinate and implement organ donation in the Greater Washington area.

To help boost the number of potential donors, the transplant consortium last December began a pilot project called a Living Donor Registry, whereby people older than 18 and in good health can volunteer to become donors of a kidney, a partial lung or a partial liver.

Most organs used in transplant procedures come from patients who are declared brain dead in hospitals after an accident has landed them in an emergency ward or an intensive care unit. The registry, a community-based list that is the first of its kind in the nation, enables healthy strangers, not related by birth or friendship to the recipient patient, to volunteer to become donors. Twenty persons are being evaluated by the consortium for this role.

An article in Parade magazine in June quoted Dr. Francis Delmonico, the medical director of the New England Organ Bank, as saying that new and advanced immunosuppressive drugs which help the body more easily accept a so-called anonymous organ make it possible for nongenetic matching donors to participate in the program.


It is too soon to say how the events of Sept. 11 have affected this and other organ-donation programs, says Toni Webb, the consortium's director of community affairs.

"There may be slightly more awareness because of the burn victims. That is what skin tissue is needed for temporary tissue while the person's own skin grows back."

Complicating donation matters is the fact that only one out of 100 deaths are brain deaths, according to Ms. Webb. When a hospital's medical staff determines that a patient is brain dead or is about to die, the consortium's clinical-recovery staff goes into action. A staff of 20, headed by John Dooley, whose title is director of recovery services, talks to the next of kin about the patient's intentions. If the patient did not volunteer earlier to be a donor, the staff will solicit an organ donation. If the reply is positive, the clinical-recovery staff arranges for a separate medical transplant team to do the surgery. The staff, working with hospital staff, also takes care of packaging the organs.

"We get a call from the hospital telling us about a potential organ donor and then send one of our clinical-recovery coordinators to do a medical record review at the hospital to see if the patient is suitable for donation," explains Mr. Dooley, who previously worked as a paramedic and was coordinator for maritime medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center.

The United Network for Organ Sharing estimates that 500 to 600 steps are involved in arranging a typical organ donation.

"A lot of emotions are going on," Mr. Dooley notes in something of an understatement. "It's a lot of dedication to the job, dealing with death and dying. I find a lot of personal reward. I'm helping people in a lot of ways people don't know about: taking death and turning it into life."


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