Accessibility links

Breaking News

Limited Organ Transplant Availability Poses Questions of Eligibility


The traffic in human organs for transplantation is a volatile issue in the medical community and among desperately ill patients in need of more than just hope. Advances in surgical techniques have made the distribution of organs, cells and tissue a real option. But there is a worldwide gap between demand and supply. VOA's Melinda Smith has the story of one man's effort to give potential donors a place in line.

When Dave Undis sits down at his computer, he is on a mission: trying to change the way human organs are distributed in the United States.

"Why would you want to give your organ to someone who is not willing to share their own?" he asks.

Undis is the founder of an organization called "Lifesharers". He calls it an 'organ circle' that promotes a simple concept: LifeSharers members promise to donate upon their death, and they give fellow members first access to their organs. As LifeSharer members, they or their loved ones would have access to organs that otherwise may not be available to them. As the LifeSharers network grows, the organization says more organs would then become available to members.

Michael Neeley has signed up. He is ill with hepatitis and needs a new liver. "...I didn't ask for it [the illness]. I have to deal with the hand [situation] I have."

It is difficult to estimate how many patients are waiting for organ transplants around the world. But the World Health Organization has raised concerns about the legal and illegal traffic of human body parts, especially in those countries where the process is not tightly regulated. The WHO says that while there are voluntary registries and some nations have imposed mandatory registration of transplant procedures, there is no widespread method of collecting the data.

Here in the United States, matching a patient with a deceased donor means finding that donor through a labyrinth of state organizations. About half of the 50 states keep track of those who sign a donor agreement on the back of most drivers’ licenses. Michael Neeley is one of at least 94,000 Americans on a waiting list to get a transplant. Some ahead of him will die before their names are called.

The director of liver and transplant programs at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee is critical of the 'members only' policy of Lifesharers. Dr. Michael Porayko thinks it puts unwilling pressure on people. "I don't think this is going to help us force people to sign donor cards. We have never seen a positive thing from trying to force the issue."

Dave Undis of Lifesharers disagrees. "If you can get an organ without agreeing to donate your own, a lot of people will take advantage of that. These freeriders are the big problem that are causing people to die."

The number of willing donors on the Lifesharers' list amounts to just a few thousand. Perhaps not enough to guarantee a transplant for everyone who needs one, but the group's organizers say more people are signing up. That has given Michael Neeley some optimism. "By joining Lifesharers, I open another door for finding myself a potential donor. But I also am able to donate."

There are many links on the Internet to organ donor organizations around the world. Michael Neeley is hoping that others will feel the same way he does: that it really is just as important to give as to receive.