A global pandemic hasn't slowed the need for organ donors.
"There are still over 115,000 people across America waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant," said Lori Clark, director of Columbia operations for the Midwest Transplant Network. "They are essential, they are lifesaving and we are still taking all of our referrals from hospitals and service areas, connecting our staff to hospital teams."
Clark, who has more than 14 years of experience in organ donation, spoke May 13 during a Fulton Rotary Club virtual meeting. The MTN is one of 58 not-for-profit organ procurement organizations in the United States. It supplies organs and tissue for all of Kansas and the western two-thirds of Missouri, including Callaway County — an area with a population of about 5.5 million people.
"Each procurement organization functions differently based on nuances such as geography and distance (between donors and recipients," she said.
Some cover a small but densely populated piece of land, such as New York City, while in the sparsely-populated western plains they're spaced further apart.
"Where they're spread further apart, it might be more difficult to get staff to the hospital, for example," Clark said. "Sometimes you have to get creative, especially in times like now."
She said she's received lots of questions about how the COVID-19 outbreak has impacted donation and transplants. Demand for tissue donations — such as corneas, knees, skin grafts and heart valves — has slowed, though she expects it'll boom as states ease back into business as usual.
"Some tissue transplants are lifesaving, but others are elective," Clark explained. "Those that are considered elective they may pause on doing that surgery."
Recipients who are at a high risk of complications if infected with COVID-19 might also be waiting.
Organs, however, are still in high demand. Some MTN tissue donation staff have been acting as organ couriers instead.
"I'm noticing some transplant centers are changing practices based on COVID, maybe they have a transplant program that's paused," Clark said. "The centers in our area is still open and functioning, and testing all donors for COVID."
Clark said a new recipient joins the wait list every 10 minutes. On average, an organ transplant occurs every 17 minutes — but 22 people die each day waiting for a transplant.
Donations have been up in recent years— nationally, 11 percent more people donated in 2019 than in 2018. In 2019, donors in the Midwest saved 929 people, Clark said.
Some types of donations can come from living donors, such as kidneys. Those types of donations are often facilitated by hospitals, she said. MTN primarily helps facilitate postmortem donations.
"One organ donor can save lives of eight individuals, give two people sight and save or enhance the lives of more than 50 people through tissue donation," Clark said.
For example, at the Missouri Orthopaedic Institute in Columbia, tissue donors help young people recover from excruciating sports injuries, Clark said.
"It's really breakthrough care for these young adults," she added.
One Rotary Club member testified to the power of organ donations to improve lives.
"I had cornea transplant on Feb. 25, right before COVID shutdown," said Mary Ann Beahon. "It went real well. I'm going to see the eye doctor this afternoon — they were really pleased with it."
Beahon has corneal dystrophy and her eyesight in one eye was becoming "really blurry," she said.
"This is supposed to bring it back," she added. "I'm thrilled because I love to read and it's kinda hard to read when you can't see really well."
There are several ways for Missouri residents to sign up to donate organs and tissue.
""It's very empowering to families when people have made the decision to donate when alive and well," she said.
Donor cards do count as consent for organ donation. Missouri residents have also historically been able to request an organ donor symbol when renewing a driver's license with the Department of Motor Vehicles, though Clark cautioned the new Real IDs might be different. Something like a license card is easy to lose or misplace, especially in an emergency scenario, and not everyone drives or carries a wallet at all times.
Instead, Clark suggests joining the Missouri organ donor registry.
"If you say yes you're in a protected database that only (the organ procurement organization) can access — the hospital doesn't have access to it," Clark said. "There's a myth going around that a hospital will minimize care if they know you're a donor. I can 1000 percent deny that has any truth to it."
You can sign up through donatelifemissouri.org/register, or through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services at health.mo.gov/living/organdonor. If you fill out the DHSS's form, the state will send you a donor symbol sticker to add to your driver's license. If you change your mind, you can remove yourself from the donor registry at donatelifemissouri.org/remove.