Every 10 minutes, a name is added to the national list of people in need of an organ donation. The Center for Organ Recovery and Education in Pittsburgh works to care for the people on that growing list.
When CORE was founded in 1977, it was based in a trailer in downtown Oakland and employed five people. Now it’s located in Pittsburgh with 125 employees. Those workers are necessary to manage a list that, as of early August, totaled 118,000 people waiting for potentially life-saving organ transplants. CORE is just one of 58 federally designated not-for-profit organ procurement organizations, according to their website.
CORE’s own list checks in at about 2,600 in a service area that covers 5.5 million people in Western Pennsylvania, a county in New York and almost all of West Virginia.
“The need continues to grow,” Communications Director Colleen Sullivan says. “As medical advancements continue, there are more life-saving transplants and operations to be done. That’s why we’ve seen the numbers grow over the years.”
Heart, lungs, liver, kidney and pancreas are among the organs most often transplanted. Kidneys are the most-needed organs as there are about 96,000 people waiting for transplants nationwide.
“Think of how many dialysis clinics you see just driving through Pittsburgh or wherever you are located,” Sullivan says. “There are quite a number everywhere.”
Each organ has different needs and timing. For example, kidneys are most durable, at 48 to 72 hours between transplants. A heart? It will only last three to five hours. Lungs also live a short period of time. For kidneys, factors such as weight, blood type and location play a part.
“Location is not as important as it had been in the past,” she says. “In the past, it was a local regional transplant, but with numbers continuing to grow, we can save more lives nationally by changing the allocation policy to a national level.”
Each of the 50 states offers the chance to register as an organ donor when you get your driver’s license or state ID card, Sullivan says. More than 90 percent of people make that decision when renewing either.
“It’s an important discussion to have before you go (to the DMV),” Sullivan says.
On average, 11,000 people who are considered to be good donation candidates die every year without donating tissue, organs or corneas, she says, and one donor can save up to eight lives.
Yet, nationally, just over half the drivers commit to be donors. In Pennsylvania, it’s 47 percent. In West Virginia, 35 percent, she says.
A “number of misconceptions deter people,” she says. Some think they are too old or too sick. Some believe doctors won’t work to save their lives if they are willing to be donors. And dying in an accident does not automatically qualify you to donate.
“You have to be in a hospital setting, you have to pass on a ventilator and you have to be legally declared brain dead,” Sullivan says. “So, if you pass outside a hospital, you don’t meet criteria to be an organ donor. You can be a tissue or cornea donor, but not an organ donor.”
This is due to the fact that organs must receive oxygen to continue working and be viable for transplant, she says.
By law, hospitals have to call a procurement company with any actual or imminent deaths. Each hospital in the nation has a designated company it calls.
“It’s a very difficult conversation to have, but we have trained coordinators who are great at what they do,” Sullivan says.
Meanwhile, close to 7,000 people each year — 21 a day — die waiting for a transplant, she says.
“We have a very active community outreach department and a very active volunteer program,” Sullivan says. “We go out and try to educate people. This is still not a common conversation unless it has personally affected them.”