Local organ recipients share stories during national donor month

organ donorJoseph Serna, Staff Writer

Every day 77 people in this country receive an organ donation that extends their life, but another 19 will die waiting for one, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ organ donor Web site.
In Long Beach’s St. Mary’s Medical Center alone, surgeons performed two kidney transplants in April, appropriate considering April is national Donate a Life month.
St. Mary’s is one of eight government approved organ transplant centers in Los Angeles County, and one of 15 in the Southern California region.
According to all persons interviewed, donating an organ can touch many lives–eight people with full organ donation and another 50 through tissue donation.
Glen Matsuke can personally attest to the life changing affects of organ donations–he received a new heart.
“I felt an immediate bond with my donor,” said Matsuke, who is also the hospital services coordinator for OneLegacy Transplant Network, the region’s go-to organization to connect donors with patients. “I’m back to a full life.”
Matsuke’s heart was failing due to a viral infection, and doctors told him he had less than 30 days to live.
“I had constant reminders that I was going to expire,” he remembers. But finally, in the middle of the night 12 years ago, he got a call from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center that they had found a donor–someone he would never meet had met with tragedy and would save his life.
“I was in disbelief, quite frankly,” he said. His new heart was beating so loud that first night he said he actually had trouble sleeping, but was also comforted by the warmth in his extremities that had been absent for so long.
His second chance spun his priorities 180 degrees–Matsuke sold his business and dedicated his life to “spreading the gospel” about donating organs to save another’s life.
Anne Stamm has also taken on the mission of encouraging people to be organ donors.
After a 10-day stay in the hospital, Stamm received a new liver, ridding her of the autoimmune disease she had that attacked her previous liver.
“There aren’t any real words to describe it,” she remembered feeling after hearing she was going to get a new liver. “Every day I think of my donor.”
Like Matsuke, Stamm’s letters to the donor’s family went unanswered.
While in years past Californians could claim their preference to be an organ donor on their driver’s license, not until July 2006 was it legally binding.
Now, whenever someone selects to be a donor at the DMV, they are officially registered with the state–that can override a family’s wishes for their deceased loved one.
Still, it’s a conflict Matsuke hopes family would rather avoid.
“It’s imperative that families have the end-of-life discussion,” he said. “Families [can be] in an additional crisis when they don’t know what their loved ones want.”
Even if a loved one isn’t in the registry, the family can still elect to make them a donor. In either case, everything is time-sensitive, as organs must generally be removed within the first 48 hours after a person has died.
Organs from the deceased are removed in similar fashion to a regular surgery, leaving families with the opportunity to still have an open casket.
Some countries around the world have adopted the “opt out” methodology, meaning people are presumed to be donors unless they specifically choose otherwise.
“There is nothing more important than the quality of life,” said Gail Daly, chief operating officer for St. Mary’s, which is limited to performing kidney transplants. “Imagine being attached to a [dialysis machine] four hours a day, three or four days a week.”
St. Mary’s has more than 100 patients on an active waiting list for a kidney, and another 250 in the process of getting on the candidates’ list.
Daly said of people who were in her hospital who could have donated, less than half, or 44 percent, were registered donors.
California has slightly less than 1.3 million registered donors, according to Donate Life California, the state’s organ donation registry.
Organ donations are overseen nationally by the Virginia-based nonprofit United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which the government assigned in 1984 to oversee the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
According to the UNOS Web site, there are currently more than 95,500 individuals waiting for a donated organ, more than 2,000 transplants have taken place so far in 2007–nearly 29,000 were performed last year.
People can donate up to eight organs: the heart, two lungs, two kidneys, the pancreas, portions of the intestines and all or some of the liver. Tissue donations include skin, bone, veins, tendons and even parts of the eye.
Organ transplants are inherently risky, with the possibility of infection a possible complication.
Matsuke, like all organ recipients, will be on immunosuppressants the rest of his life, leaving him more vulnerable for diseases like the common cold. However, over time the body adjusts and his daily dosage tapers off.
Both he and Stamm each have a new appreciation for life.
As Stamm put it, “Now I really do stop and smell the flowers.”
To register to as an organ donor, go online to www.donatelifecalifornia.org/register.