Dr. Timothy Shafer: Graceful Health: Be a lifesaver!

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Did you know that you have the potential to save eight lives, by donating your organs after you die? All across the nation, thousands of people are waiting for a heart, lung, liver, pancreas, kidney, or intestines. Others could benefit from a tissue donation. You could make the difference.

It's understandable that talking about organ donation is difficult. Until the issue touches you directly, affecting you or someone you know, it's easier to avoid the topic.

Consider, though, that this is one way you can save someone's life without risk to your own.

Consider also the following illustrative story: A baby boy was born a few years ago. It should have been a happy occasion, but instead, there was much anxiety because the baby had two malfunctioning kidneys. If only one kidney was faulty, he could have survived that way.

It is actually fairly common to live with one kidney. Some people are born this way. Amazingly, others give away one of their kidneys to help someone who needs it. As long as they protect the remaining kidney, they can live normal lives.

But this baby boy had two bad kidneys. Something had to be done, or he would die. He survived for several years with the help of his doctors and regular dialysis treatments, and then a suitable kidney was donated. At three years old, he received a new lease on life, the ultimate gift that would allow him to grow into a happy, healthy youth with a world of possibilities ahead of him. Someone's generosity saved his life.

There are two ways that organ donation can occur. Federal regulations require that every hospital death be reported to an organ procurement agency so that the national registry can be checked. If the deceased person is a registered donor, the decision is easy. If not, the next of kin will be asked to make the decision. Donation is possible in each scenario, but registering ahead of time and making your own wishes known is the kinder situation. You ensure that your wishes will be honored, and you protect your family from having to make a hard decision at a difficult time.

Right now, there are approximately 120,000 men, women, and children waiting for organ transplants. Sadly, more than 20 people die each day before a suitable organ is found.

Despite the long waiting list, it is very important to stress that being a registered donor does not mean your doctor will let you die. Our first responsibility as doctors is to take care of our patients, to do all we can to save your lives. Donation is only considered when every life-saving effort has failed.

It's easy to register. You have two options. You can register when you renew your driver's license, or you can go online to the National Donate Life registry: www.registerme.org. This national computerized list is used to match donors with those who are waiting, based on genetic matching, geographic location, medical urgency, and length of time waiting.

Organ donation is blind to wealth, social status, gender, race, or age. There are very few health exclusions. You can make specific choices about which organs you are willing to donate, and these preferences will be honored, as long as disease, injury, or another condition does not make this impossible. You can also edit your preferences if you change your mind.

There is no cost to the donor or the donor's family, and the donation does not interfere with your choice for funeral arrangements.

A total of 5,448 organ transplants have been performed this year (as of March 30; this statistic is updated daily at www.optn.transplant.hrsa.gov). As I said earlier, many more people are waiting for this miracle of generosity to occur.

Organ donation is a truly heroic act. Donors have the satisfaction of knowing that, even after they die, a part of them will live on in a grateful recipient.

April is National Organ Donation Month. Please take some time to think about becoming a life-saving donor.

Someone will be glad you did.

Dr. Timothy Shafer is a graduate of Oberlin College and Dartmouth Medical School. He was in private practice for 20 years before joining the Grace Cottage staff in 2003.

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