Even in death, a gift of life

The death of a loved one is a tragic time for families. A growing number find comfort in knowing they were able to help someone else by donating the organs and tissue of their deceased family member.

To help spread the word, April 16-22 has been declared ?National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week? by the American Red Cross.?

For 30 years, lives have been saved and extended through transplants. Not only are organs transplanted, but also tissues. Tissues include heart valves, bone and skin tissues, temporal bone and connective tissue.

?Most people are familiar with organ donations, but tissue donations are not something they are familiar with,? said Pat Robinson, chapter manager for the American Red Cross in McPherson and Marion counties.

This was the case for Lucille Prieb of Hillsboro.

When her husband, Wesley, died, she said they had not discussed being a donor, but it was something she felt he would want to do it.

Prieb said she did not realize tissue donation was different than organ donation.

?We had not heard of this part,? Prieb said. ?We had heard of organ donation before, but we hadn?t really heard about tissue donating.?

Prieb and her children made the decision together.

?We thought it was a good idea because he was always a giving person and he could still be giving even after he passed away,? she said.

Through their donation, Wesley?s corneas helped two people to see and the long bones in his legs were crushed up to help athletes when they are injured.

Prieb said knowing they could help others in need gave her comfort.

Marcella Klaassen also made the decision donate her husband?s tissues when he died in May 1990. The two had discussed being donors previously, so no new decision was necessary.

?We had always been concerned with donating,? Klaassen said.

Through the donation, several people were helped. One person;s was restored as a result of using the temporal bone.

?We got a very nice thank-you letter for the donation,? she said.

Robinson said it is important for people to realize how widespread the need is for tissue.

?So many people who need surgery can?t get them because there is not enough muscle tissue, bone or whatever supply,? she said. ?There are just so many things tissue can be used for.?

Alisa Phillips, of American Red Cross Tissue Services, said they are receiving only one-sixth of the skin they need. If all of the tissue banks are combined, only 8 percent of the tissue needs in the country are being met. She said it is common to postpone surgeries because the needed tissue is not available.

Currently, anyone from birth to age 80 can be a donor, but the situation is always changing.

?One tissue donor can help between 40 and 70 people,? Phillips said.

Robinson said the biggest obstacle the Red Cross faces is people not being aware that they can donate tissue.

?There just hasn?t been as much publicity and it?s not as dramatic a story (as organ donation),? she said. ?It is exciting for the person who gets it?a young girl who had a knee injury or a boy in sports who had a surgery to replace a ligament. It?s fairly exciting to them because it is going to enable them to walk again.?

Depending on the donation, the gift can be life saving or life enhancing.

?That is a good feeling to know you have done all you can possibly do,? Robinson said.

Checking the box on one?s drivers license or donor card is no longer enough to ensure organs or tissues are donated.

Phillips said it is necessary to seek written consent from the legal next of kin.

In August 1998, a new mandate was issued requiring every death to be reported to the organ bank. If a hospital does not ask the family members if they want to donate the deceased organs or tissue, the hospital can have its Medicare payments stopped.

?A lot of nurses have a hard time (asking about donation) because they thought this was an extra burden on the families,? Robinson said.

But it isn?t for most families. Robinson said when people start making plans, it is important for them to give the necessary information so they can make a clear decision on donating.

Phillips said most people have three concerns about tissue donation: Does it cost something? Is it against my religion? Will my loved one be disfigured?

Phillips said the procuring agency absorbs the costs, all major religions support donation and no visible evidence will be evident.

In addition, the family can limitation donations in any way they want.

?People just don?t have the right information and they just don?t realize there actually is going to be a surgery and all of those parts are going to be replaced,? Robinson said. ?They took very good loving care of your loved one.?

The process is the same as if doctors were performing surgery on any patient.

?It is a question everyone will be faced with sooner or later,? Phillips said.

It is easier for family members to make a decision if the issue has been discussed previously.

?I?ve worked with grieving families and it?s a struggle to make a decision at that time,? Phillips said.

One way donating tissues is different from donating organs is that the donor does not have to still be living. Doctors have up to 24 hours to retrieve the tissues.

Tissue has the benefit of not needing tobe typed and matched. Rejection is not a factor.

To get information out about donating, the Red Cross Tissue Services offers programs to businesses and organizations.

?It might be someone in your family down the road who needs that donation,? Robinson said. ?It is something every family needs to think about before it happens.?

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