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Health Talk

with Kelly Ranum, Executive Director of the Louisiana Organ Procurement Association


There is something about February and the gifting of hearts — not just the red paper ones, either. Feb. 14 is, appropriately, National Donor Day, which aims to raise awareness about organ donation. Nearly 99,000 Americans currently are registered on the waiting list for organ transplants. Locally, the task of recruiting, educating and coordinating potential donors is headed by Kelly Ranum, executive director of the Louisiana Organ Procurement Association (LOPA). A federally designated, not-for-profit organization, LOPA works with families, donors, and medical staff during every stage of the recovery process. Ranum discusses organ and tissue donation, and how to stay off the waiting list.

Q: What is LOPA's involvement in the organ recovery process?

A: The hospitals are required to call us when a patient meets a certain criteria — they're not opening their eyes, functioning on their own, responding to pain. We'll go out and talk to the doctor and medical team. ... We'll follow from afar until it gets to the point that it's a nonsurvivable injury. Then we'll begin to work with the family. ... Eighty-eight percent of our donors are brain dead.

Q: How does someone become brain dead?

A: The obvious ones would be gunshot wounds to the head, drownings, or if they haven't had oxygen to the brain for 4 minutes or more. We see quite a bit of that where they have strokes [because] they haven't been compliant with blood-pressure medication. That's part of the health issue. You really do need to take your blood-pressure medication. We know it doesn't always feel good, but the result of not taking it can be deadly. ... We've also seen people falling out of deer stands on their heads. Some car accidents.

Q: Tell me more about some of those health issues affecting organ donation.

A: We talk a lot in the schools about diet and high blood pressure and diabetes. Taking care of your organs not only makes you a healthy individual and prevents you from going on the list, but should you suffer an untimely death ... that also makes you a healthy donor. If you can prevent people from going on the list, it's our obligation to talk about that along with donation.

Q: What can you recover from the donors?

A: The heart, lungs (and the lungs can be divided), the pancreas. ... Two kidneys and a liver. And the liver can actually — depending on the size of the patients — be divided if you have a small adult and a child. (You also can recover) tissue.

Q: How is donated tissue used?

A: Almost every hospital in this state uses bone transplant. Even dentistry uses bone surgery. Heart-valve transplant is the gold standard. If you can recover a piece of fascia [the connective tissue between muscles and bone], you can use it as a bladder swing (or for) the pericardium surrounding the heart (or for) patches on your brain. It's absolutely amazing. In pediatric bone cancers, they can actually do a whole bone recovery instead of having an amputation. They always say that they're life-enhancing, but for someone who might otherwise need an amputation, you might say that it's life-saving.

Q: How many transplants do you oversee annually?

A: Last year, we had 160 organ donors, which equated to 500 transplants.

Q: How big is the recipient waiting list in Louisiana?

A: Sixteen-hundred people.

Q: What's the average wait for an organ?

A: For the kidney, you average about a two-year wait. Six months to a year for liver, more than a year for the heart and lungs. Lungs are harder to find because they're more exposed. They tend to get infections or injured in a car accident or if there's multiple gunshots.

Q: What would it take to eliminate that wait time on the list?

A: If everybody that was eligible to donate would donate, we would at least be able to keep up with the people being listed.

Q: Why don't more people sign up as donors?

A: I think a lot of people think (that if they've indicated they will donate organs) they're not going to be saved when they come to the [emergency room]. The E.R. staff try everything they possibly can to save someone. The same things they do to save someone are the same things that will protect the health of the organs if they're not going to survive. It doesn't make sense to say we're not going to treat you if you're going to be an organ donor.

Q: What are some of the other misconceptions?

A: The second one is that you aren't going to have an open casket. The incisions we make are just from your chest to your stomach. In all honesty, unless you're going to be wearing a V-neck, you're not going to see it. ... And there's always religion. People think their religions are against it. The reports we have from all the major religions are that they support it.

For more information about becoming a donor or for tickets to LOPA's Feb. 16 Second Line for Life benefit, visit www.lopa.org.


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