The independent news organization of Duke University

Tragedy publicizes organ donation need

Jesica Santillan's untimely death has brought publicity to the organ donation process and may increase the number of organ donors nationwide, some organ procurement groups report.

Although it is too early to obtain hard figures indicating an increase in organ donors, experts say the media attention surrounding the case could increase the donor pool.

"The volume of phone calls we have been getting from people requesting donation information has significantly increased," said Jane Corrado of Carolina Donor Services, a procurement organization that works to obtain transplantable organs. "I think it's led to an increase in interest and people who want to become an organ donor in North Carolina."

Elisabeth Gabrynowicz, a spokesperson for the national organ procurement organization, United Network for Organ Sharing, agreed.

"It's safe to say that in general [Santillan has] raised awareness of the severe organ shortage in the United States," Gabrynowicz said. She said there are about 80,000 patients waiting for organ transplants in the United States, and approximately 17 people die every day waiting on an organ.

In contrast to Corrado and Gabrynowicz's experiences, Debbie Gibbs of the North Carolina Coalition on Donation said she has not noticed a substantial increase in individuals interested in organ donation due to the Santillan case.

The process of transplantation begins when a patient who needs a new organ is listed in a national database run by UNOS, along with the patient's medical information. When an organ becomes available, a list of possible recipients is generated by the database to match a donor to a proper recipient. The list is ranked according to medical and scientific criteria, including body size, how long the patient has waited, immunological status and urgency of need.

Groups throughout North Carolina and the nation are working to increase the donor pool. Carolina Donor Services is the federally designated organ procurement organization for most of the state, serving 6.1 million people in an area that includes 104 hospitals and four transplant centers that perform heart, lung, liver, kidney and pancreas transplants.

Bill Jones of the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, the department through which many motorists sign up to become donors, said it is too early to get a definite idea of how much of an increase in donors Santillan's publicity will bring, since data has not been collected.

Jones added that people often choose whether or not to be donors when they receive or periodically renew their license--an activity independent of SantillA¡n's death. If there is a correlation between recent media attention and growth in the donor pool, he said, it would probably present itself as a gradual increase over time rather than a sudden jump.

Carolina Donor Services and the N.C. Coalition on Donation both sponsor educational programs. The Coalition on Donation is currently developing a curriculum about donation for North Carolina high school students, and works with the Department of Motor Vehicles to distribute brochures on the topic.

North Carolina residents can become donors by indicating so on their driver's license and signing a nationally-recognized "donor card," downloadable on the UNOS website, or by expressing their wishes to family members.

The North Carolina "Gift of Life Act," passed in 1997, requires hospitals to notify organ procurement organizations of all deaths up to the age of 75 and allow the organizations to determine donation potential.