April is National “Donate Life” month, an opportunity to celebrate life-saving organ and tissue donors and the recipients whose lives they save.

Most often, transplant surgery relies on altruistic generosity. For those waiting with end-stage organ failure, their lives and future are in the hands of strangers, and they wait, not knowing if they will ever get the call that they have matched and will be receiving a transplant.  The decision to donate is a personal one, but most often donor families tell us of how giving and kind the donor was in their life and see donation as a natural extension of their spirit. It also allows their loved one’s life not to end, but to continue on in others.

What is the impact of one organ and tissue donor?

It’s incredible. Up to 8 organs can be donated and transplanted and tissue can benefit up to 50 recipients.

How does UVM Medical Center help with organ donation?

We partner with the Center for Donation and Transplant (CDT), based out of Albany, to honor donation wishes for their patients. Our responsibility is to ensure that we present the family of every potential organ and/or tissue donor with the choice to donate. Failure to present the family with this option means we have chosen for them. Members of the health care team have guidelines on when to call CDT to refer patients for evaluation.

Who is considered a potential organ donor?

Potential organ donors are patients on ventilators with a non-survivable injury. This injury could be due to a stroke, cardiac arrest, respiratory issues, or trauma. Donation only becomes an option for patients when we consider and perform any and all life-saving procedures and interventions and they are, unfortunately, unsuccessful. The health care team’s goal is always to save the lives of their patients.

What is the process for organ donation?

Organ donation is a process that begins with a family saying “yes” to donation.

We perform specific organ evaluations to determine suitability for transplant. We make offers to transplant programs where the potential recipients are waiting. This does not happen quickly. The average time for a donation to occur is 24 hours, but can vary depending on the donor.

The donor remains on a ventilator during this time so that their organs remain perfused and well-oxygenated. Each of the recipient’s transplant surgeons flies to the UVM Medical Center to do the organ recovery for their patient. So, there may be several teams flying in from different states. The transplant teams, OR staff, health care team, and donor family collaborate to coordinate a time for the donor’s surgery.

Transplant surgeons fly into the airport on private jets as they must quickly return to their transplant program for the recipient’s surgery. Cardiothoracic organs (heart and lungs) need to be transplanted within 4-6 hours of recovery. Timing is extremely important. When everyone is ready, we bring the donor to the OR for the donation. If the family wishes, our staff line the halls on that final walk the family will take together to pay our respects and honor the donor. We call this an honor walk.

What is the meaningfulness of organ donation?

Organ donors leave a legacy of kindness and benevolence. They save lives and bring hope. The knowledge that some good came from the loss of their loved one helps some families. They may be comforted by the decision to donate. It can be extremely meaningful to donor families and help them as they grieve. All donors are different and every person is unique, but they always have one consistent quality — that is that their family says that they would have wanted to help others.

There is no greater gift that someone can give when they die than to save the lives of others.

Jennifer DeMaroney is an organ donation coordinator at the UVM Medical Center. If you have any questions about donation please reach out to her at Jennifer.demaroney1@uvmhealth.org.

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