Organ donations: The gift of life

Apr. 13, 2014 @ 05:49 PM

Delores Benton Evans owes her life to her son.

Without his donated kidney, Evans knows she would not be among the living.

Evans’ kidneys were failing in 2008, and her doctors said she needed a transplant soon.

Tragically, her son was fatally shot that year. Before he died, he had volunteered to give his mother one of his kidneys, so the transplant was done soon after his death.

“I know it saved my life,” Evans, a 66-year-old Durham attorney, said.

Evans is one of thousands of people in North Carolina and across the nation whose lives were saved by an organ transplant, but the sad truth is that the need is far greater than the supply.

In North Carolina, 3,343 people were waiting last week for an organ transplant, and 2,910 of those were for a kidney, according to Sharon Hirsch, executive director of Donate Life North Carolina, a coalition of organizations working to increase organ and tissue donations.

Across the United States, 121,000 are on the waiting list.

“That number is much higher than in past years,” Hirsch said. “It continues to increase every year.”

Why?

“A lot of it is how we’ve taken care of ourselves,” Hirsch said. “We’ve seen an increase in diabetes and high blood pressure -- those are the diseases that tend to land people on the transplant waiting list.”

Kidneys are by far the most needed organ.

“Many people don’t understand that you can be a living donor,” Hirsch said.

In North Carolina, 4.5 million people are registered donors -- shown by a heart on their drivers’ licenses.

The main way to sign up as an organ and cornea donor is at the Department of Motor Vehicles, when getting your driver’s license or ID card. The law requires DMV examiners to ask all applicants if they want to be a donor.

A second way is to visit DonateLifeNC.org. That can be done at any time.

Hirsch’s organization is pushing for more Durham residents to sign up, because their participation rate is well below the state average of 50 percent.

At Durham East DMV office, it’s 44.1 percent, and at the Durham South DMV, 48 percent.

Hirsch also wants to dispel myths about organ donation that keep many from registering:

-- Age doesn’t prevent you from being a donor. Everyone is a potential donor regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender or medical history.

-- You can be a donor even with a history of cancer, if you take medication for high blood pressure or live with diabetes and other chronic diseases. Your medical condition at death determines what organs and tissue can be donated.

-- People registered as donors get the same medical care in hospitals as non-registered donors.

-- Organ and tissue donation won’t interfere with funeral arrangements. Open-casket funerals are still possible.

- There are no costs to you, your family or your estate to be a donor.

You can register at a DMV office as an organ and cornea donor. To sign up as a tissue donor, visit DonateLifeNC.org

Donating tissue may not always be life-saving, but it can greatly improve a recipient’s life.

Examples include ACL repair, back surgery that requires donor bone and hearts valves to extend life.

“There are no waiting lists for tissue and corneas today,” Hirsch said. “Through the miracle of eye and tissue banking, corneas and tissue are available for anyone who needs them.”

A major barrier to convincing people to be organ donors is fear, because it requires families to talk about death, Hirsch said.

“These are tough conversations about what you want when you pass away,” she said. “As a culture, we haven’t talked about that enough. We want you to have this conversation with your family and share your wishes, so that when something happens to you and your family is asked about donating organs, they’ll already know the answer.”

Hirsch said the most gratifying thing about her job is meeting people who are alive because someone gave an organ.

“You hear about what their life was like while they were waiting for an organ,” she said. “They didn’t have much of a life. And then to see how they are today – living their lives and giving back, and doing extraordinary things. It’s miraculous. It motivates me every day.”

For Delores Benton Evans, having her son’s kidney let her return to a normal life. She’s resumed her law practice and can work in her garden again.

“I want people to know that the act of organ donation is one of the miracles that we see everyday,” she said. “It’s a very unselfish gift, and an opportunity for the recipient to get another chance at life. We want others to have the opportunity that we had.”