April Is Donate Life Month: Transplantation Update

Article Categories: Nursing News & Patient Education

Every April, the health care community celebrates Donate Life Month, a reminder of the need for organ donation and life-saving transplants. Nurses are often asked about donation, or may be involved in the donation process as part of their job. Take a few minutes to read about what’s new in transplantation and to review some facts about the need for organ donors.

Organ donation and transplantation is a relatively new branch of medicine, started in 1954 when the first successful kidney transplant was done with identical twins. Following this landmark procedure, transplant entered an experimental era, including the famous 1967 heart transplant by Dr. Christian Barnard. However initially successful the operation, organs were rejected by the recipient’s immune system. It wasn’t until 1983, when the first immunosuppressive drug (Cyclosporine) was available, that transplantation could be considered as a realistic treatment for organ failure.

Over sixty years later, transplantation is now routine for end-stage organ failure. Most rejection can be avoided or delayed with sophisticated drugs and constant medical management. New areas of transplantation continue to expand the boundaries of what is possible:

• Vascularized Composite Allografts, such as hand and face, are complicated transplant procedures involving blood vessels, nerves, bones, and tendons. They can dramatically change and improve the recipient’s life by allowing them to return to society.

• Uterine transplants offer hope for women with Uterine Factor Infertility (UFI) whose only option has been surrogate pregnancies. While the first U.S. uterine transplant was not successful, nine other transplants around the world have resulted in five pregnancies and four healthy babies. The interesting thing about uterine transplants is that they are “temporary,” with anti-rejection drug therapy for 1 or 2 pregnancies before removing the uterus.

• Stanford University has developed a regime for kidney transplant patients that eliminates the need for immunosuppression. This is a major breakthrough, since long-term immunosuppression can lead to complications, including osteoporosis and some types of cancer.

• 3-D printers show exciting promise in producing functional body parts. Although early in development, researchers have “grown” ears for mice that are able to form cartilage and blood vessels. The implications for providing precise individual structures to replace living tissue or organs could impact the future of transplantation.

Meanwhile, the list of patients waiting for an organ transplant grows every day. Over 125,000 children and adults need a transplant to stay alive. A name is added to the waiting list every 10 minutes…and someone who is waiting will die every hour. Even with awareness campaigns, there are not enough organ donors. In 2014, there were 14, 414 donors who gave the “gift of life” to 29, 532 recipients. Clearly the need for donation is great.

As a nurse, you may find these talking points useful during Donate Life Month:

• Anyone can be an organ donor! Criteria is constantly expanding; your medical condition will be evaluated at the time of death.

• Even if you are on your state’s Donor Registry, tell your family so they know your wishes.

• Organ donation is consistent with the beliefs of most major religions.

• There is no cost to the family or the donor’s estate for donating organs.

• An open-casket funeral is possible for organ, tissue, and eye donors.

• All races and ethnic groups are encouraged to be donors. Transplant success is better when these groups can be matched.

• Organs and tissues that can be donated are heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, liver, intestines, corneas, skin, tendons, bone, and heart valves.