The gift that keeps on giving: more organ donations needed
September 8, 2013
Four years after Ray and Dorothy Dixon brought Collin Dickey under their roof and cared for him like a son, they lost him on Aug. 18 after he crashed head-on into a truck on his way home from work.
The tragedy of losing the recent Nevada Union High School graduate was somewhat assuaged by his choice to be a donor and the fact that his organs went on to save three people, said Ray Dixon.
"I'd like to impress the importance of organ donoring," Dixon told The Union in the week following Dickey's death. "Signing the donor card was important to him."
And it was important to the Dixons, too, who were Dickey's guardians, but not his next of kin. When Dickey turned 18 less than six months before his death, the donation decision lay only with him, Dixon said.
Under ideal conditions, one donor can supply as many as eight organs, according to Sierra Donor Services, a federally designated nonprofit donor network that serves nearly four million people in Northern California and Nevada.
However, only about 8,000 of the approximately 12,000 medically suitable potential donors nationwide actually donate each year, and only 40 percent of Californians are signed up as donors, reported SDS.
An average of 18 people die every day due to a lack of available organs, coupled with a refusal rate among families of potential donors nationwide of around 50 percent. In 2012, 6,079 Americans died while waiting for a transplant — one person every 90 minutes.
The waiting list for organ transplants grows at the rate of 1,000 per month, with another name added to the list every 13 minutes.
"It is so wonderful to know there are that many people out there giving, but it's sad to know there are that many people waiting," said Nevada County resident Sharon Scudero, who donated a kidney to her sister.
Californians make up 18 percent of the nearly 120,000 people nationwide awaiting organ transplants, according to SDS.
In Sacramento and 10 surrounding counties plus the city of Santa Rosa, more than 1,300 people are on the waiting list for an organ transplant.
"When you are on the list for a transplant, it is because you have no other options," said Tom Reuscher, whose son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis shortly after birth. By 24 years old, Reuscher's son Mike was the recipient of a double lung transplant.
Each year, more than 28,000 people in the U.S. receive organ transplants, according to SDS.
In 2012, more than 28,000 lives were saved nationwide through organ transplants.
In that same time period, there were only 8,144 people who donated one or more organs upon death.
"For every person out there who does that, I don't know if they realize how much they are helping," Scudero said. "It is a big deal, it does save lives."
Scudero lost an 18-year-old nephew in a vehicle wreck, who donated his organs, and her 4-year-old grandson benefited from a liver transplant when he was 18 months old.
"He wouldn't be here if we hadn't gotten it," Scudero said.
"He wouldn't have made it through the night."
For families who lose a loved one, Scudero said, organ donation can be a silver lining.
"For them, the donation is a rainbow that helps them to heal, to deal with a difficult situation," she said.
For recipients, though, the lifesaving organ can come with complicated emotions.
"When you get a heart, you know someone died to give it to you," Dixon said.
Sierra Donor Services regularly receives messages from recipients inquiring about their donor, but medical privacy records prohibit the agency from disseminating patient information without their permission or that of their surviving family.
"If both parties agree they want to share their information, we do that," said Tracy Bryan, a Sierra Donor Services spokeswoman.
"It's kind like adoption; it's anonymous until both parties agree to share information and meet," Bryan said.
Often recipients or their families will write letters to SDS, which the nonprofit will forward on to the donors' families, Bryan said. Sometimes they respond, but not always.
Scudero's daughter, the mother of her grandson who received a kidney, wrote a letter to the donor's family a year and a half after the surgery, she said, but has yet to hear back from them.
"That poor family lost, we believe, an 8-year-old right before Christmas," Scudero said.
While the demand for organ donations outweighs supply, Reuscher said that the impact of a donation spreads far beyond an immediate family and can spur people to either agree to be a donor or to tell their next of kin their wishes in the event of death.
"The impact of Mike's donor in saving his life has touched tens, twenties of people," Reuscher said. "I don't know how many people have committed themselves as donors because of that generous act."
To sign up as an organ or tissue donor, visit donatelifecalifornia.org or go through the Department of Motor Vehicles. More information about Sierra Donor Services is available at sierradonor.org.
"I would tell anyone that is at all concerned, if there is any pause, get the facts and make an informed choice," said Kathy Medeiros, Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital's CEO and Reuscher's wife.
"But it is a gift," Medeiros said.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4236.