FEW ACTS are more generous than the transplant of a lifesaving organ from a living donor to another person. So it was heartbreaking when a man who had agreed to donate part of his liver to a sick relative died during the transplant surgery on May 24 at Lahey Clinic in Burlington.
Such deaths are unusual: In more than 4,000 liver transplants from adult living donors in the United States in the past two decades, this was only the third time a donor died because of the operation.
Even so, fewer living donors would be put at risk if more Americans would simply agree to donate their organs after death.
The need for donors in the United States is acute. About 107,000 Americans are currently on the national waiting list for the kidney, liver, pancreas, or heart that could keep them alive. More than 28,000 transplants were performed in 2009 — but 49,000 new patients were added to the waiting list. Last year, 6,500 people died while awaiting an organ that never came — an average of one death every 80 minutes.
Far more lives would be saved if more people registered as donors. Each year, roughly 15,000 Americans die under circumstances suitable for organ donation, such as when brain death follows a car accident. But only in half of those cases is permission given for the decedent’s organs to be removed. Tens of thousands of potentially lifesaving organs are buried or cremated.
According to the National Donor Designation Report Card, only 86 million people — just over one-third of US adults — were enrolled in state donor registries at the end of 2009. That number should be much higher. There is no cost to donors or their families. In most states, drivers can sign up as donors when they renew their licenses. Online registration is easy: New England residents can do so at www.DonateLifeNewEngland.org.
Unlike living organ donation, agreeing to be an organ donor after death requires no special courage or even effort. Yet it offers the greatest of rewards — the chance to save the life of another human being.