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Health officials look for ways to encourage, increase organ donation

Ellen Abbott
Kathy Baker shows a photo of her daughter, whose organs were donated after she died suddenly. April is Donate Life Month.

There continues to be a shortage of organ donors in New York State and central New York. The donor council at Upstate University Hospital is urging the community to learn about the issue, and join the organ donation registry.

Kathy Baker, of Baldwinsville, learned about the issue in a tragic way. Last May, her 36-year-old daughter Michelle died suddenly, and in the midst of that grief, Baker was asked if her daughter’s organs could be harvested for transplant. She said yes, and while it doesn’t change the fact that her daughter is gone, it does give her some comfort.

"It is knowing that her precious heart is still beating. It’s knowing that through the tragedy of her death, there has come life. And that’s helped me in dealing with the grief of losing her,” said Baker.

There are simply more people who need organs than organ donors. The situation is especially bad in New York state, which has the third lowest donor registration rate in the country, and the third highest need.  

Upstate’s interim transplant services director Dr. Vaughn Whittaker says the shortage has forced transplant teams, in essence, to settle for less.

"Organs that we would have traditionally not considered for use, we are using them in specialized circumstances, or as pairs, so we can get patients off the transplant list,” said Whittaker.

The doctor says it’s like buying a car -- sometimes if you can’t have a new vehicle, an older one will do.

"It may not be able to give you 30 years or 40 years, but it may give you ten years, which is enough time to see your grandchildren graduate from high school. Or for you to spend some quality time in Europe with your husband, or whatever you need to improve the quality of your life.”

Whittaker says without more people joining the donor registry, the medical community is looking for other ways to get people to donate organs. For example, he says there is one proposal to offer free health insurance to people who would donate a kidney. And details are being finalized to allow transplant of an organ from an individual who is HIV positive, to someone who is HIV positive.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.