Approximately 23 people die every day in the US waiting for an organ transplant that never comes. The general public seem to think transplant happens all the time. The reality is only 1-2% of all deaths, all kinds and all ages can be an organ donor. Each referral is evaluated on a case by case basis but it is a very rare opportunity. Many people think they are too old for a transplant or to be a donor.The oldest organ donor in the US was a 92 year old liver donor who saved the life of a 69 year old recipient! There is really no way to determine if they can donate without the evaluation by the Organ Procurement Organization (OPO). Even if the donor is elderly, it doesn’t mean the kidneys or liver aren’t healthy and viable. There is an age limit of 65 for heart and lung donors. This is why it is so important that at any age your family knows your wishes and or it is displayed on your driver’s license.
One of the most popular myths about donation is that the hospital staff will not work as hard to save your life if you are a designated donor. Imagine a scenario in a busy trauma unit, a team trying to save a life, they are doing CPR, inserting life saving IV lines, giving medication rapidly to restart your heart and someone finds your license with the donor designation on it….and they stop trying to save the patient. That never ever happens. The healthcare team is completely focused on saving your life and the organ donor teams only come in when there is no hope left. The coordinator will arrive at the hospital after being called and they will know if the organ donor designation is on the license before coming. This information is accessed on the DMV website by the OPO directly. The process is extremely regulated, professional and ethical but asking a family to donate organs remains the hardest part for the nurses who choose this career. The donor designation allows them to move forward with testing without family consent. The evaluation by the OPO will determine their ability to donate, and then the coordinators talk with the family. People frequently ask if they have the right to move forward if the family is not in agreement and there are 2 answers; legally yes they have every right to move forward but ethically most donor programs will have multiple talks with the family but not move forward if there is no resolution.
Now here are the sobering statistics in our sunshine state regarding recipients and donors over age 50. We have 4 organ procurement organizations and 13 transplant centers. As of 2/28/23 we have a total of 2,112 patients ages 50-64 waiting and 1395 age 65 plus. The organ breakdown for people 65+ waiting is as follows: Kidneys 1241, Liver 100, Pancreas 1, Kidney and Pancreas 2, Heart 28, Lungs 23, and Intestines 0. The stats for older people being able to donate and receive organs has increased and improved every year and in 2019 63% of all US recipients were older than 50 with 21% being older than 65. Due to the direct correlation between donor age and the length of organ/recipient survival, older donors almost always save the lives of older recipients. Compare the number of people waiting on our transplant lists with the fact that in 2022 the entire state had 943 deceased donors with only 296 donors aged 50-64 and 75 donors aged 65 and older. Organ donation is not a tragedy, but it can be the light in the midst of one.