Organ Donation: The Ultimate Gift from the 1960s

The ’60s gave us sex, drugs, rock & roll, and one giant leap for mankind, but the decade left us another legacy that may prove more important—organ donation. Throughout the 1960s, the medical field was taking its own “small steps,” removing the first kidneys, hearts, lungs, and livers from cadavers and implanting them into patients whose own organs were failing them. Congress legalized organ donation in 1968 and, from there, the process spread around the medical world, becoming a vital lifesaving procedure.

Organ donors come in two types: living and deceased. 1 in 2.28 organ donors lives to tell the tale. Among living donors, 1 in 1.66 (60%) is female and 1 in 2.31 falls into the 35- to 49-year-old age group. Almost all of them gave up a kidney, accounting for 5,968 of the 6,218 living-donor operations in 2008. The other 250 living donors gave up sections of their livers, except for one lone soul who donated a portion of pancreas.

Aside from this small percentage, anyone needing an organ other than a kidney will need a deceased donor. 1 in 1.69 (59%) deceased organ donors is male, and most are older than their living counterparts. 1 in 3.61 is between 50 and 64 years of age. The odds that a deceased donor has died from natural causes are 1 in 2.83; however, 1 in 6.28 die from car accidents and 1 in 10.36 from gunshot wounds.

A famous case of this latter statistic was the tragic death of 7-year-old Nicholas Green in 1994. Green was shot by highway robbers along the winding mountain roads of Italy while on a family vacation. His parents’ decision to donate his organs ended up giving new life to seven young Italians. As a result of the news coverage of their decision, donor registration skyrocketed in Italy and the United States.

Last March the need for more organ donors received international attention as news spread that the family of Natasha Richardson donated her organs after she died from a head injury she received while skiing in Quebec.

Some 90% of Americans say they support organ donation and 79.7 million have signed on to the donor registry of their state, according to the non-profit group Donate Life America. But, the group warns, don’t be fooled by these statistics. While 9 out of 10 Americans support organ donation, only 38% of US driver’s license or ID card holders are registered as organ donors, according to the group’s 2009 Organ Donor Report Card. Overall, only 1 in 3.75 people in the US are registered organ donors. And in 2008, for the first time in at least 20 years, the number of both living and deceased donors declined over the previous year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN).

The data, which is preliminary and subject to change, showed the number of deceased donors decreased by 100, and living donors decreased by 99: small amounts, but it led to 402 fewer transplants performed in 2008 compared to 2007.

As of November 3, 2009, 104,750 people were on an organ donation waiting list, according to the federal government’s official organ donor website. The average time they’ll have to wait depends on many factors, including the organ. Heart transplant patients are on the list an average of 230 days; kidney patients are on the list an average of 1,121 days. And every day, about 19 people die before a match can be found.

But there’s some hope the tide may turn in their favor. Organ donation is becoming more accepted, and many states are now using a system called “mandated choice,” in which citizens have to either accept or decline an invitation to become a donor when they renew their driver’s licenses. What’s more, registering to be a donor has apparently gone mainstream. There’s now an iPhone app that will walk you through all the steps needed to sign up to save a life.

This medical legacy from the 1960s lives on—giving a whole new meaning to “free love.”

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