This story was one of several sponsored stories I wrote for Creative Loafing Atlanta.
Did you know that April is National Donate Life Month. If you didn’t, odds are someone you know, whether friends or family members, have probably benefited from these life-giving contributions. Thousands of people around the country receive the life-saving gift of organs and tissue every day. But unfortunately in America several people are still in desperate need of donations.
In Atlanta, LifeLink of Georgia provides education on organ donation; work with families and hospitals to facilitate donor wishes, and provide follow up support to families whose love ones contributed to saving others. The organization works with over 150 hospitals across Georgia to make this possible.
According to annual reports by Donate Life America, as of 2017, Georgia has maintained a 43 percent registered donor rate for the past three years. Where states like Alaska and Colorado lead in donations at 88 and 69 percent respectively. Why has the needle not moved in the state, a factor could be due to myths and perceptions.
“Hollywood gets it wrong when it goes into donations than the general public realizes for sure,” says Tracey Ide, Senior Public Affairs Coordinator with LifeLink of Georgia. “A lot of the questions we encounter from people comes from misinformation.”
For example, unlike what is dramatized in television shows, hospitals cannot recover organs after a person has died. The truth in the matter is far more engaging and intricate.
Hospitals in Georgia are required to contact LifeLink after all possible efforts to help the patient have been exhausted. From there, LifeLink goes into action. Its here they deploy their team of support staff to consult with the families for donations. If the family or guardian approves, LifeLink provides their team of doctors to receive the organs and tissue the family approves. Afterwards, LifeLink coordinates with hospital and services for final arrangements of their loved ones.
“They are going do everything they can to save a life, and once they realized that there is nothing they could do, that’s when they call LifeLink. On shows like Grey’s Anatomy you see the same doctor doing everything. In reality the doctors who take care of you have nothing to do with the recovery process or organ donation. LifeLink takes care of all that and attending doctors are not involved in that process.”
And this just scratches the surface of what LifeLink does in this process. Within 24 hours donations are tested and registered in a national database for potential matches of life-saving gifts. It is an arduous task of checks and balances, but through it all LifeLink works tirelessly to help patients awaiting the donations they need.
Still there is a shortage of viable organ and tissue donors across the country. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a staggering 114,831 people are awaiting donor matches across the country. Roughly 10 percent of those people awaiting donations are from Georgia.
“Over 15,000 people are waiting for a transplant here in Georgia, and nearly 5,300 people are waiting on organs. On average of 22 people die a day because there’s not enough organs available,” says Ide. “The biggest thing is people aren’t making this decision to be an organ donor. They’re not signing up and registering to be an organ donor.”
Another contributor to the shortage is not all deceased persons can be organ donor candidates. In order to provide an organ donation, the attending medical staff must determine brain death. Organs cannot be received after a person is deceased. “Most people are more familiar with cardiac disease, when your heart stops and you stop breathing,” says Ide. “In those instances you can only be a tissue donor but you cannot be an organ donor. Once that blood flow stops the organs are no longer probable.”
LifeLink hopes during Donate a Life Month, people will become more educated about the organ and tissue donation process.
“One person can decide to leave a huge legacy behind. We always think about how we can help somebody while living – how can we be a better person. But to know that a decision that you made while you’re living can still affect people after you’re gone.”
LifeLink suggests one person can potentially help up to 75 deserving recipients. Aside from organs like hearts, lungs, kidneys, and livers, tissue donations such as skin tissue, ligaments, corneas, and heart valves can be recovered to help needy people across the country.
There are two additional myths involving donations LifeLink hopes to dispel. The first is costs. “There is no cost to organ and tissue donation from the time the family gives consent or authorization for donation,” says Ide. “LifeLink assumes the hospital bill for their organ donation process. We don’t pay for anything prior to the recovery, and we don’t pay for anything after for example funeral services. The actual act of donation is a gift and because of that process, it is not charged to the family.”
Lastly, a myth that affects people in the south is open caskets.
“Here in the south, open casket funerals are a big thing. You can still have an open casket funeral. During the recovery process, we make one incision right down the chest, kinda like an open heart surgery. For skin tissue recovery, it mostly comes from the back or the back of the legs, plus you’ll have clothes on and none of that will be visible at donation after donation.”
Educating Georgians is a big part of what LifeLink does. Along with their staff, LifeLink utilizes volunteers that are either recipients or donor families generally, but anyone can volunteer.
“People want to give back to the community and we utilize them to go speak at engagements, presentations,” says Ide. “We love to share our stories and our volunteers are the same way. So we’ll basically go anywhere. We really use our volunteers to speak at churches, high schools, colleges anywhere someone needs to hear the message and it helps put a face on donation.”
To become an organ donor, you can visit www.donatelifega.org to sign up. Or if you are updating your Georgia driver license or identification card, please select the organ donor option on the form. If you are interesting in volunteering with LifeLink of Georgia, please visit their website at www.lifelinkfoundation.org.