SIKESTON -- Imagine a family gathered in a cramped hallway in a hospital emergency room. Then imagine that same family learning that their loved one is brain dead, which means this person will never recover. Now, in an effort to save the lives of others, imagine talking to this family about making their loved one a potential organ donor.
Situations similar to this one are all too familiar to Breita Church. Church is a donor program specialist/family services coordinator for Mid-America Transplant Services in Cape Girardeau. Her job includes discussing donation options with family members who have lost or are in the process of losing a loved one. She also works closely with hospitals like the Missouri Delta Medical Center in Sikeston, and continually trains their nurses and hospital personnel about organ donations.
"If anything, organ donations are decreasing," Church explained. "So there is definitely a need for more donors. The waiting list is growing faster than organs can be received."
According to MTS, as of January 2002 in Missouri, 93 people are already on the waiting list for heart transplants, and in 2001, only 50 people were recipients of hearts. Currently in Missouri, 956 people are waiting for kidney transplants, 286 for liver transplants and 549 for lung transplants.
More than 80,000 men, women and children currently await life-saving transplants in the United States. On average, 19 people die in the U.S. each day waiting for an organ.
"Just signing the back of your driver's license does not guarantee you're going to be a donor," Church said. "Ultimately, it is your legal next of kin who makes the final decision for you to be a potential donor."
To avoid confusion after your death, Church strongly recommends talking with family members about your feelings on donating organs or tissue. It's so important because you're not going to be there to answer their questions after you die, Church said.
"It's not something that has to be talked about every Sunday night at the dinner table," Church explained. "But it is something that should be discussed long enough to understand your family member's wishes."
Church has spent countless hours with family members who have lost a loved one. She recalls a conversation between family members who were trying to decide whether or not to donate their loved one's organs. "I remember one of them saying, 'You know if a donated organ could save him (deceased loved one), we would want someone else to give. So why don't we just give?'"
Church said she hears things like that all of the time, and strangely enough, it's the parents or the adults who have a harder time grasping the concept of organ donation.
"Kids understand," Church said. "Most kids are like, 'Of course I would donate my organs. I'm done with my body and now I can help others.'"
Contrary to what children may believe, many people are afraid to donate their organs because of misconceptions, Church said.
Probably the most common one is the public's view that if emergency room doctors know you're an organ donor, they won't work as hard to save you. That's ridiculous, Church reassured. There would be too much conspiracy involved by the ambulance driver and the emergency room doctor, and it's impossible, she said.
Another misconception is that when you're waiting for a transplant, your financial or celebrity status is as important as your medical status. Church said, "I always bring up former Chicago Bears football player Walter Payton when people ask me that question. He died of liver cancer before he received a liver."
Anyone from a full-term baby to a person who is 80 years old and medically suitable can donate tissue or organs, Church said. Tissue donations are not life-saving, but they are life-enhancing, Church said. Some tissue donations include skin for people who are burned or valves that can be used to connect heart valves. Tissue donations are more common than organ donations in Southeast Missouri and have been donated at Missouri Delta Medical Center, she said.
"The words I hear over and over by family members whose loved ones have donated are peace and solace," she said. Church recalled when a little boy died in Perryville. His mother donated his organs, and the valves from his heart were used to save a 7-year-old girl in Peoria, Ill. Church said the boy's mother was devastated by his death, but the mother said it gave her peace to know that he lives on in someone else.
Church insisted: "Donating a loved one's organs, or even your organs, will help the grieving process, plus it will give another person a chance at life. It's a two-sided coin."