SALT LAKE CITY — One-hundred-twelve Utahns saved the lives of at least as many other people already this year because, upon their deaths, they were registered organ donors.
Utah ranks fourth among 93 states and countries studied recently for the high number of people who are willing to help save lives with their own, according to a recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In fact, 78% of Utahns 16 and older are registered organ donors.
“It says a lot about the giving nature of the people of Utah,” said Alex McDonald, director of public education and public relations for DonorConnect, which manages the Utah and Idaho organ donor registries at yesutah.org and yesidaho.org.
The article, published Aug. 8, puts Utah behind Delaware, Alaska and Nevada for its high number of registered donors. Of the states and countries studied, Latvia ranks lowest, with fewer than nine donors for every 10,000 deaths.
Fewer than 2% of people who die will actually meet the criteria for successful organ donation, including that they must die in a hospital, on a ventilator and from a brain injury, McDonald said.
In Utah, 772 people are awaiting life-saving organ transplants, including 524 of them needing a kidney, the most commonly donated organ across the United States.
Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network shows that of the 112 donors in Utah in 2019, 51 of them are living donors.
“I’m amazed at the giving nature of people,” McDonald said. “A lot have stepped up ... they are making a huge difference in the lives of many people.”
In all, 230 organs were recovered from those 112 organ donors, with 213 of them ending up being transplanted.
“One organ donor can help up to nine people, saving nine lives,” McDonald said, adding that body tissues and corneas of the eye can also be transplanted, helping to improve the lives of up to 75 people.
“That’s quite a legacy to leave behind,” he said.
The success of Utah’s organ donor registry, he said, is due in part to partnerships with the Utah Driver License Division and hospitals across the state that advocate for organ donation and saving lives. A record number of lives were saved in 2018 in Utah, when 403 transplants took place. It was a 14% increase from the previous year.
In May, 21 people donated 71 organs in Utah, another record for the state.
McDonald said the “gift of life” does not come without grief for the donor’s family and friends, who experience great loss.
The network of available organs hasn’t increased because more people are dying, however. McDonald said advances in medical technology allow for kidneys and livers to be put on pumps, which not only prolongs the time an organ can be outside a body, but also brings them into better functioning status.
Of the more than 113,000 Americans awaiting organs today, about 80% are waiting for kidneys, he said.
New pharmaceuticals and surgical techniques, too, have helped to stave off transplantation for patients needing organs, which keeps them off the waiting lists until it is absolutely necessary.
The article posted in the online Journal of the American Medical Association states that while the U.S. has experienced increasing numbers of willing donors year after year, “the number or organs available for transplant still does not meet the increasing need.”
McDonald said that although unfortunate, there will always be people who need transplanted organs to survive.
“I don’t know if it would ever be possible to eliminate the waiting list,” he said. “The need is always outstripping the supply.”
Even so, the more people who sign up, the more chances are that they will be able to help save lives. And if anything, McDonald said, it will decrease the amount of time people spend waiting life-saving transplants.
The U.S. system of organ donation is unique, as it requires people to opt in, either by joining a registry or through surrogate authorization, both of which creates legally binding permission for donation at the time of death. Internationally, however, countries operate on an opt out basis, which makes more organs available overall.
States have tried to amend their own laws, based on the federal Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, but have not been successful, according to the article.
“The U.S. culture is deeply steeped in individual rights through many laws and societal norms prioritizing individual autonomy,” it states. “Rights-based cultures are inconsistent with opt-out policies founded in utilitarian and social contract concepts.”
Instead of changing everything in the U.S., including the culture, the article’s authors suggest that growing the registry across the country is the best possible scenario to save even more lives.
McDonald agrees, and adds that people should plan on sharing their intentions with family prior to death.
“That conversation is very powerful,” he said.
To register as an organ donor in Utah, visit yesutah.org.