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Organ donation can save lives, but only if a match is available

Published: Tuesday, April 30 2013 5:35 p.m. MDT

Keri Stephens, mother of Anthony Whitaker, an organ donor, and her daughter Isabella Whitaker are emotional as they look at the glass wall where their son and brother's name is engraved on the Celebration of Life Donor Monument near the Salt Lake Main Library, Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of Utahns on organ transplant lists are waiting on a remaining 30 percent of Utahns to give them hope to survive.

It may be that the person who can provide a matching lifesaving organ just isn't registered to be an organ donor. While 70 percent of Utahns have joined the list, some are still holding back for one reason or another.

Throughout April, Intermountain Donor Services held various events to push for increased participation in Utah's Organ Donor Registry, but so far, the only thing that is up is the number of hits on its website, said Alex McDonald, director of public education for the organization.

McDonald said there's no way to tell how many people have been moved to action, but "this is one thing where every person has the potential to make a difference."

"We're always in the top five or six states in the country for the percentage of people registered, but you have to remember that only about 2 percent of deaths are actually eligible for organ donation," he said. "It's sometimes hard to get that point across."

Lori Haglund of Murray knows the pain of losing a loved one who was waiting on an organ transplant list.

Haglund's son, Brock Butler, died in September, eight days after his 21st birthday, while awaiting a coveted liver, the most dire of organs ailing individuals need, as there is no medical method available to keep the old one alive and functioning much longer after it quits working.

She had imagined picking him up from swimming practice after getting the call that a lifesaving organ was ready for him, and he always told her he wanted to include a trip to the barber on his way to the hospital to receive his new liver.

"That was how we lived our lives, feeling hopeful and that it would happen, never thinking for a second that it wouldn't," Haglund said.

Butler was diagnosed at age 10 with Crohn's disease and later was hit with the complicating diagnosis of an autoimmune disease of his liver. From that point, Haglund said, "we always knew that a liver transplant would be in his future, and we hoped it would be when he was an old man. We never imagined it would happen to us in this way."

Although it is painful to talk about, Haglund wants people to understand the tragedy that can occur when someone says no to donation.

"A year ago today, he was working part time and going to school and playing music with his friends and riding his bike and being a kid," she said. "If you knew about his disease, you could tell his skin was yellow and he'd tire more quickly than the average 20-year-old, but he was upbeat and happy about life. A lot of people didn't even know he was sick."

As of Tuesday, 730 Utahns were similarly awaiting lifesaving organs. Of those, 176 were waiting for a new liver, as theirs also may have deteriorated from a disease or other condition. About 475 people are awaiting kidneys, three are needing a new pancreas, 18 need a kidney/pancreas combination, 52 need a new heart, and six are awaiting lung transplantation.

More than 100 of those awaiting organs in Utah are under age 34; 107 are ages 35 to 49; 311 are between 50 and 64; and 143 are older than 65, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing, a national nonprofit organization that manages the country's transplant system under contract with the federal government.

"A lot of people are right in the prime of their life when they need these organs," McDonald said. Some are merely children and have much life to live.

"A void in our hearts"

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