Organ donation process subject to influence of family members

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12 2013 11:25 p.m. MST

Pictured are Gerri, whose son Sebastian died in a car accident, and Carol, who received Sebastian’s liver.

Courtesy of Intermountain Donor Services

Mary Pitman and her husband had very different views regarding organ donation. She insisted that they discuss the topic so they would be able to respect the other's wishes when the time came.

When he did die, she knew exactly what he wanted.

"I was so grateful that I had the conversation with my husband," she said. "We were so completely opposite on it, but we were able to honor each other's very strong feelings."

There are many types of "talks" routinely suggested, ranging from sex to drug use, but Pitman suggests this talk is just as important and is something all families need to have.

"It's not just an end-of-life decision. You never know when someone is going to have a car accident," Pitman said. "You need to have that conversation today."

Even if a patient is registered as a donor on his or her driver's license, the family can still play a role in the organ donation process and sometimes succeed in vetoing the donation entirely, Pitman said, based on her experience of 31 years as a nurse.

It is critical for family members to discuss their wishes regarding donation as soon as possible, said Anne Paschke, media relations specialist for the United Network for Organ Sharing. Discussing wishes now can prevent future complications down the road when emotions take over in the hospital room, experts say, and can ensure the organ donation process — which can save multiple lives — continues unimpeded.

"Family members are generally very supportive if they know what you wanted," Paschke said. "It's much harder if they have to make that decision for you."

Role of OPOs

The recovery of organs is typically handled by an organ procurement organization, of which there are 58 in the country to serve particular geographic regions. The Washington Regional Transplant Community serves the Washington, D.C., metro area, for example, and Intermountain Donor Services covers the state of Utah.

These organizations provide after-care services to family members of deceased donors in their programs, said John Ogden, media representative for WRTC. He said WRTC offers services such as a memorial quilt project, donor family gatherings and grief support groups.

OPOs are the primary organizations responsible for advocating awareness about organ and tissue donations in their respective service areas, Ogden said via email. They also are responsible for encouraging individuals to register as donors, he said, which is something more people are doing around the country.

"There is a cultural shift happening locally and nationally," said Alex McDonald, director of public relations for Intermountain Donor Services. "People are recognizing that it is the right thing to do. Fifteen years ago, people would say, 'Why would I do that?' Now they are saying, 'Why wouldn't I?’ ”

The shift can be attributed to the increased awareness of donations, in part through social media outlets like Facebook, as well as the increased success rates among patients, McDonald said.

"Today it is not unusual for people to live 25 years or more with a heart transplant," he said. "More people are seeing the success of transplantation."

Calm within the storm

A major facet of the donation process is simply helping family members remain calm and think coherently after the death of their loved one, McDonald said.

"The family needs a chance to absorb the information and (the fact) that their loved one isn't going to survive," he said. "They need people to help them talk about their options, and the vast majority of times the families do come around."

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