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For the week of March 7 through 13, 2001

Myths taint organ donation process

Public attitudes also slow to adjust

He hopes his and his wife’s action "will be another of the building blocks by which organ donation becomes not unusual or horrifying, but the natural thing to do."

Reg Green, donor’s father

Express Staff Writer

Organ and tissue transplants are no longer viewed as astounding, even bizarre, medical feats—they have become just one more tool that doctors use to save lives.

In 1999, 21,655 organ transplants of all kinds took place in the United States.

But while medical technology and skill have advanced since doctors regularly began to perform successful transplants in the early 1980s, the public’s attitudes about them have been slow to adjust.

For a number of reasons, people are reluctant to donate, which is a major cause of an organ and tissue shortage.

The result: Last year, 5,500 people in the United States died waiting for organ donations that never happened. Many more were cut off from sources of tissue, such as skin, parts of the eyes, veins or heart valves, that could have improved their lives.

Geri Etringer, a social worker at the University of Utah Lung Transplant Program in Salt Lake City, has firsthand experience with the problem.

She repeatedly sees the same scenario: Somebody who has agreed to be a donor dies, but the organs and tissue are never used because a relative objects, often for reasons that are unfounded. Because the window of opportunity for using the organs is so small, and because the relative is usually distressed, there’s almost never time to dispel the misconceptions that prevent the relative from saying yes.

Etringer said during an interview that she can understand a relative’s wanting to intervene in some cases. However, she also believes there’s "so much misinformation out there" that causes needless problems.

One man, for example, didn’t want his mother’s eyes donated, but they were removed and destroyed later for embalming anyway, something Etringer suspects the man didn’t know. The misunderstanding resulted in a missed opportunity to treat somebody’s eye problem.

Other misunderstandings and myths are many and run from the mundane to the absurd. Some believe organ donation costs money, precludes having an open-casket funeral or gives hospitals a reason to decrease the level of care to someone about to die.

One widely circulated story involves a business traveler who is said to have been drugged and to have had his kidney stolen while in a foreign hotel. Another story involves baby snatchings for the purpose of obtaining the babies’ organs.

The Intermountain Organ Recovery System dispels all those ideas and many more on its Web site.

But there are other barriers that will likely have to be overcome before the organ and tissue shortage ends.

Etringer said that signing a donor card or agreeing to a "donor" notation being made on a driver’s license (as about 40 percent of Idaho drivers have done) are only the first steps people need to take.

"You need to talk to your family," Etringer said, so family members will know not to sabotage the donation plans when the time comes.

Better education about how donation works is also important, she said. Some transplant programs now give talks to eighth-grade health classes, though she says much more than that is needed.

She believes that small towns and rural areas are less aware of the issues surrounding donations. Even emergency room personnel in small-town hospitals sometimes fail to recognize a potential donor, she said.

A law passed in 1998 that requires hospitals to ask families if they’re willing to donate a near-dead relative’s organs or tissue might be helping. According to the Intermountain Donor Services, the number of people donating organs in Utah, southwestern Idaho and western Wyoming increased from 44 in 1997 to 61 in 1999.

That trend might also be the result of awareness campaigns, media attention and exposure of celebrities who have had transplants.

"Seeing them healthy helps," Etringer said.

One famous example of a donor who became a celebrity was Nicholas Green, a 7-year-old American boy who was shot and killed by thieves in Italy in 1994.

When the boy’s parents donated his organs, they created a worldwide stir and an increase in donation pledges that became known as the "Nicholas effect."

During an interview, Nicholas’ father, Reg Green, said he hopes his and his wife’s action "will be another of the building blocks by which organ donation becomes not unusual or horrifying, but the natural thing to do."


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