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Ignorance hinders organ donation

Nov. 13, 1997

By Jennifer Williams

Reporter for The Baylor Lariat

Ten people die every day waiting for organ transplants and according to Pamela Silvestri, manager of community education at Southwest Transplant Alliance, these deaths are unnecessary because of the technology and medicine available for the surgeries.

Silvestri said there are 55,000 people waiting for organ transplants today, but because of the method of death requirements of the organ donors, only 5,000 of the 15,000 potential donors are able to donate.

Donors must have been on a respirator at the time of actual death so the organs -- heart, liver, pancreas, both lungs and both kidneys -- can still be receiving oxygen.

Silvestri said if two-thirds of the potential donor families said 'yes' to donating at least three to four organs, then 'we could virtually wipe out the waiting list.'

Silvestri said there are several reasons why the public does not decide to donate their organs.

She said many people are uneducated about the process and do not know exactly what happens when organs are donated.

'When people are less educated, they fear medical technology. They are afraid that doctors won't save their lives if they know they are donors,' she said.

The Southwest Transplant Alliance educates transplant recipients who can relate to people in low-income or minority neighborhoods.

She said minority and low-income individuals tend to think that only 'rich white people receive heart transplants.'

Silvestri said that organ donating and receiving surpasses all boundaries. While minorities make up 30 percent of those on the waiting list for organs, African-Americans only make up 12 percent of those donating and only 8 percent of Hispanics are signed up as donors.

The Texas Medical Association, a professional organization of more than 34,000 physicians and medical students, is campaigning to help families and physicians in making the decision to 'Live and Then Give.' The campaign encourages possible donors to sign uniform cards and to discuss their choices with their family members.

The campaign is being spear-headed by the president of TMA, Dr. Phil H. Berry Jr., a Dallas orthopaedic.

Berry is also a liver transplant survivor with a first-hand account of how it feels to become sicker and sicker while waiting for an organ.

'Not knowing if I was going to get an organ -- that was the hardest part,' Berry said. 'I didn't know if there was someone out there with enough love...I'll be forever grateful.'

Berry said that he has met the family of the donor from whom he received his liver and that have become a second family.

The woman's family, he said, believed that part of her was still alive and that her death was not in vain.

'That is what organ transplantation is all about,' Berry said.

Silvestri said that many families do not know the wishes of their deceased family members and this leads to the donor shortage.

Silvestri said that many people are not aware that potential donor's families must consent in writing to donate the organs -- even if the deceased has indicated donorship on his or her driver's license.

Silvestri said that 50 percent of families agree to allow famly members donate and the other half are reluctant to donate because doctors and nurses don't call their local organ banks.

'Ninety percent of families think organ donating is good and would donate themselves or allow their relatives to donate if they knew what they wanted,' she said. 'Unfortunately, many people do not speak with their family about their wishes.'

'People's families don't always know what they wish. So, tell your family what your want,' she said.

Some Baylor students take organ donating seriously and believe that it is a gift of life.

'I had a good friend in high school and he had two heart transplants,' said Cynthia Crum, a Little Rock senior. 'It was wonderful because he got to live 15 years longer than he would have otherwise.'

Crum said that she would love to help someone by giving her organs because she would no longer need them. She said that it is important to talk about it with family members so there are no misunderstandings.

Jessica Morrison, a Waco senior, said that she does not understand how anybody would intervene with her wants if she chose to be a donor.

'If I'm dead, I've already used my organs,' she said. 'I can't use them anymore, so why not save somebody else's life?'

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