By Lori Brigham
It was a Friday morning, and as the sun rose over the Lincoln Memorial more than 100 members of the United States Coast Guard gathered on the sixth floor of George Washington University Hospital. They came to say goodbye to their shipmate Molly Waters, who lost her life after a motorcycle crash. Molly, a Coast Guard commander, spent 16 years rising through the ranks and lived to serve. Now even in death, Molly served others since she had made the selfless decision to register as an organ donor. As Molly was brought from the intensive care unit to the operating room to donate her organs, her shipmates, family, friends and hospital staff lined the hallway, a growing tradition known as an “Honor Walk.” We stood silently in the weight of the moment, collectively mourning such a tragic death and expressing our gratitude for the generosity of this ultimate act.
Last year in the United States more people than ever gave the gift of life by donating their organs upon their death. This isn’t the type of record that makes headlines. But it should be. Organ donation and lifesaving transplants can only occur when individuals like Molly and their families realize that even in death they can make a difference and become part of a much larger story.
That story is one of generosity and inspiration that has led to steady increases in organ donations and transplants. Organ transplants in the U.S. saw their sixth consecutive record-breaking year in 2018, with an 18-percent increase in deceased organ donors between 2015 and 2018. The 10,721 deceased donors last year meant 29,680 transplants for people waiting for an organ. Here in the D.C. metro area, we are part of this story, too. Last year, our organization surpassed our own record recovering and allocating 474 organs from 137 generous donors, which saved the lives of 401 people.
At Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC) located in Falls Church, we work every day to help save more lives through organ donation. Our job is to educate medical professionals and the public about organ donation; facilitate the recovery of organs, match them to waiting patients and deliver them to transplant hospitals; and support donor families before, during and after the donation process and help honor the legacies of their loved ones. We work in close partnership with six transplant centers and 44 hospitals to decrease the number of patients waiting for a lifesaving organ.
WRTC is one of 58 organ procurement organizations (OPOs) across the U.S. Our singular mission is to save lives through organ donation and transplantation and, as a community, we are working toward the day that no one dies waiting for an organ. The unfortunate fact today is that with more than 113,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, the need for a donated organ far outpaces availability. And while increased public awareness and willingness to be a donor is essential, that alone isn’t enough. Only three in every 1,000 people die in a way that allows for the possibility of organ donation.
OPOs are working to improve these odds. We are pursuing positive changes to federal policies that govern organ donation and transplantation, including promoting the use of organs from more complex donors, improving clinical support, providing OPOs access to donor hospital health records and addressing transplant center reimbursement and evaluation policies that might be a disincentive to otherwise successful organ matches.
We are also committed to our own continuous improvement and support the development of an improved method for measuring OPO performance, as was included in President Trump’s recently announced initiative on Advancing American Kidney Health. An enhanced metric that improves the ability to recover and deliver organs to those who need them will not only serve kidney patients, but all patients waiting for an organ.
Additionally, at WRTC, we realize the power of scientific and medical research and its ability to save lives and heal patients. Therefore, deceased donors can donate organs and tissues, unsuitable for transplants, to far-reaching medical research and therapy initiatives. In 2018, WRTC allocated 92 organs for research, which ranked seventh in the nation.
The system for organ donation in the U.S. is complex and highly regulated, providing a strong infrastructure and successful track record from which to build. At WRTC, we are privileged to play a role in this system and are committed to working with our local and national partners to make it even stronger and more successful.
We honor those who have embraced organ donation as an act of human kindness to inspire others to register as donors too. We encourage you to make the legal and informed decision to be an organ donor.
Lori Brigham is president and chief executive officer of the Washington Regional Transplant Community.