By JOSEPH B. NADEAU
WOONSOCKET – Most people are aware that organ donation can save lives, but they may not know that a significant number of hurdles have to be cleared for an actual organ transplant to occur.
In fact, of the thousands of potential donations that are identified every year in New England, only between 300 to 400 successful donations are actually completed, according to Kenny Laferriere, hospital relations coordinator of New England Donor Services.
That’s why Laferriere, himself a donation recipient, was at Landmark Medical Center on Friday to help celebrate National Donate Life Blue & Green Day highlighting the importance of organ and tissue donation.
Laferriere received a heart transplant at Boston Children’s Hospital 20 years ago and has been working in organ donation for past 14 years.
“It’s a way to pay it forward and help other people to benefit from organ transplants,” Laferriere said.
Landmark’s observance included a gathering of hospital staff involved with organ donations for a group photo in Christensen Hall with bunches of green and blue balloons around them.
Robert Ready, Landmark’s director of case management and an RN, said Landmark was able to identify three patients as potential donors in 2020, and saw two of them go forward as donors after their families made the decision to help others.
Landmark was also able to have nine of 42 patients identified for tissue donations go on to make those donations in 2020 and so far this year, the hospital has had an additional successful organ donation from a patient.
Up to eight people can benefit from a single organ donor, according to organ donation statistics.
The process of identifying a potential donor and moving onto the actual recovery and transplant of organs or tissue is complex and can follow two different paths to helping prospective recipients, according to Ready.
The first involves patients who have died but can still provide donations of tissues such as bone or tendons, or corneas, for repair surgeries on a patient’s joints or eyes that do not require a functional organ, according to Ready.
The second type of donation involves a patient who has suffered a severe brain injury from which they cannot recover but has left their organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, or kidneys, still functioning and eligible for transplant.
When a patient is identified as a potential donor, Ready’s office will begin coordinating that possibility with New England Donor Services after reviewing the case records and beginning the process of meeting with family members to determine if a donation would be possible.
“There are clinical tests that happen at the hospital and are repeated, that determine if the patient is brain dead and confirm that the patient has no ability to recover,” Ready noted.
Dr. Glenn Fort, Landmark’s chief medical officer, said making that determination usually begins in the ICU when the medical staff and care professional explain a patient’s prognosis to their family members.
The Landmark team working with the family will meet and then make a determination if donation is an option that can move forward, according to Fort. The final decision will also involve the hospital’s ethics committee as yet a further check, according to Fort.
“It’s not just the ER doctors who make a determination that a patient is brain dead, it is a whole team of people,” Fort said.
Although a person can indicate their preference to be an organ donor on their motor vehicle license, only about 50 percent of people nationwide make that designation even though up to 90 percent of people are supportive of organ donation overall.
Families as a result often make the determination to donate to others while facing the loss of a loved.
It can be a difficult decision to make, but also one that provides a level of solace and comfort to family members in their time of loss, according to Laferriere.
“Instead of just dying, their family member is now a hero because they were able to save someone’s life with the organ donation,” Laferriere said.
A successful transplant also has a ripple effect through the community as the beneficiary is able to go home and resume a normal life, according Laferriere, something he did himself after his transplant surgery.
“I am doing well and I am humbled to be alive,” he said.
“I’m married and have two kids, and I pay taxes. I’m alive because of the donation and I am able to do everything ordinary Americans do on a daily basis,” Laferriere said.
Even with all of the improvements in anti-rejection medications and transplant techniques, there are still a number of factors limiting how many successful procedures can be done.
Some of the patients identified as eligible may not move forward in the process due to other illnesses such as cancer, hepatitis, HIV, or more recently COVID-19.
A prospective recipient must also be identified through the transplant network before the recovery can be conducted and their surgeon put in charge of the recovery the procedure at the donating hospital.
Dr. Fort said all prospective donor candidates undergo extensive testing for any potential disqualifying illness and that also contributes to why many of the initially identified prospective donors do not result in transplant donations.
In the case of a heart transplant, a medical team only has about four to six hours to recover the organ from a living donor and implant it in the recipient for a successful procedure, according to Laferriere.
That is also why awareness and the participation of local hospital’s like Landmark, who help families make a donation to save lives, is so important, Laferriere noted.
“Hospitals like Landmark coordinate with donor services to make giving the gift of life possible,” Laferriere said.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75