For Leanne Smith, that was the life she lived for about three years. Smith's late husband, John Kurtz, who had a long illness that put him in need of a liver
transplant, went on the organ waiting list in 2005. "When you're waiting, your whole entire life is consumed by the waiting," Smith said. "Every time
the phone rings at an odd hour, your heart leaps into your chest." The couple couldn't be away from their house for more than 30 minutes. They
couldn't even go to a movie. "We were tethered to our phones," she said.
In 2008, Kurtz passed away before an organ became available.
"The need for organs and tissue is almost unlimited," said Kevin O'Connor, president and CEO of LifeCenter Northwest, the organ, eye and tissue donor registry and recovery agency for Montana and Washington. Some 105,000 people across the country are currently awaiting an organ. In Montana, 220 people are in need of life-saving organ transplants. Last year in the U.S., 8,000 people passed away and donated their organs.
"We'd certainly like to see an increase in that number," O'Connor said. "Every opportunity for a donation is absolutely precious."
There were 6,000 live organ donors in the United States last year. Part of the reason the number of deceased donors is relatively small is because organ donations can come only from victims of nonsurvivable brain injury. "In the U.S. that's a relatively small number of the people that die," O'Connor said. In the last two years, six people who passed away at Benefis Health System donated their organs. A total of 18 organ transplants took place thanks to those donors, according to Vickie Hatzenbeller, director of Critical Care at Benefis.
Statewide in 2009, 63 lives were saved by 15 Montana organ donors.
Receiving a donated organ can truly save a person's life. An organ transplant, on average, extends the recipient's life by 30 years.
"Transplant recipients can lead remarkably robust lives," O'Connor said.
"It's very important what we do," said Dr. Chad Engan, trauma specialist at Benefis. "And we need to do more." The consent rate is one of the most challenging aspects of the organ shortage, Hatzenbeller said. The decision to donate organs can be a hard choice for a family to make when it's grieving.
"Forty percent of the families that decline donation regretted that afterwards," according to a study, O'Connor said. Every effort is still made to save someone's life in the hospital, despite their status as organ donors, he said. It's important for people to make end-of-life decisions and to discuss those decisions with their loved ones in advance, Smith said. When a family knows their loved one wanted to be an organ donor, it makes that decision much easier at a time of emotional distress. "It helps ease their grief and their sorrow at a time when they're under a lot of stress," said Smith, who now handles public relations for LifeCenter Northwest in Montana.
Families who donate their loved ones' organs become some of the most vocal proponents of organ donation, O'Connor said. "It provides incredible satisfaction to their family," he said. "The knowledge that something came out of their tragic loss is like gold to them."
Montana is in the top 5 percent of states in terms of the percentage of the population registered as organ donors, with 62 percent of licensed drivers registered as organ donors, O'Connor said. The nationwide average is about 37 percent. Alaska is the No. 1 state for organ donor registration, with 74 percent registered. Registering as a donor provides legal consent to donate organs, eyes and tissues for both transplant and research at the time of death. However, telling your family about those wishes helps them in the event of a tragic situation.
One organ donor can donate up to eight organs: two lungs, two kidneys, a liver, pancreas, heart and intestine. A donor also can donate tissue, including corneas, heart valves, skin, tendons and other tissues. More people are eligible for tissue donation than organ donation.
Tissues are used for sports injuries, heart valve replacements and a wide variety of other use.
"The projected need for tissue graft is just unlimited," O'Connor said. Benefis is not a transplant center and there are no transplant centers in Montana. Instead, recipients travel to Seattle, Spokane, Denver, Salt Lake City or Minneapolis. The Great Falls hospital does ligament, tendon and other tissue transplants, Hatzenbeller said.
While on the organ waiting list, Kurtz got two nonproductive calls. The first came in 2006, and Kurtz and Smith hopped on a flight to Seattle. "John started writing his thank-you letter to the donor family on the flight," Smith said. After they arrived at the hospital, they found out the organs from the donor weren't viable. As Kurtz continued to wait for an organ, he got increasingly ill. The couple eventually had to move to Seattle so he could receive medical care. Kurtz got a second call in March 2008, but as he was being prepped for the transplant, his heart went into arrhythmia, making the transplant impossible. Instead the organ went to the second person on the waiting list.
"We were so heartbroken," Smith said. Eventually Kurtz became so ill he needed a heart, kidney and liver transplant. At that point, he opted to go off the organ waiting list because he felt it was unfair to take three organs out of the pool for what would have been a very risky transplant.
"It was an incredibly selfless act," Smith said.
When Kurtz passed away in 2008, rather than flowers or donations, his obituary asked people to honor his memory by registering as organ donors and donating blood.
"(Registering as an organ donor) is probably one of the most loving things you can do," Smith said.