Health Careers Journal

The Field of Organ Transplantation

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Guest article by Lisa Zyga

One person dies every 16 minutes in the US while waiting for an organ transplant. Although health experts can’t directly increase the number of organ donations available, a network of local organ transplant organizations can find ways to make sure that more people who need an organ get one – and one that fits.

The field of organ transplantation is technologically fascinating and professionally diverse. In the 1940s, organ transplantation was virtually non-existent. Only in the past several decades has the technology caught up to allow patients a high chance of survival when undergoing transplantation. Now, the medical community faces a new problem: a lack of available organs.

In some ways, finding suitable organs for patients is more important than the actual surgery, simply because of the severe shortage of organs. Only about 7% of individuals on the waiting list will receive an organ within one year. While doctors and nurses can usually perform a successful surgery, it’s somebody else’s job to line up the body parts: specifically, an organ coordinator.

All organ transplants in the US are coordinated by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), an independent nonprofit organization that operates under the US Department of Health and Human Services. Any individual in need of an organ transplant must be registered in a nationwide organ distribution system called the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), which is operated by UNOS.

Across the country, there are nearly 100 local “organ procurement organizations” (OPOs) that are responsible for the organization of donations, as well as the retrieval, preservation, and transportation of newly available organs. Most organ donors are brain-dead individuals on life support, and their organs must be recovered quickly in order to achieve a successful transplantation. In addition, OPOs educate the public and medical staff about organ donation, and work with donor families during the entire donation procedure.

OPOs hire a diverse staff, including organ procurement coordinators, donor family advocates, and technicians that perform the actual organ and tissue recoveries. Still other staff members are involved in community outreach, teaching educational classes and encouraging individuals to volunteer to donate their organs. The education and background of many OPO staff may include RN, surgical, or paramedical certification, bachelor’s degrees in life sciences, and higher education in the medical field.

When an organ becomes available in the local area, the OPO staff members must work quickly to gather all the personal information about the donor to compare with a waiting list of individuals in need. UNOS has established a system that generates a ranked list of potential recipients based on several factors, such as the physical compatibility between donor and recipient, and waiting time.

Once the OPO determines the best candidate and prepares the organ for delivery, the rest is up to the recipient’s surgical team. While transplantation is successful about 95% of the time, patients often must take immunosuppressant drugs for their remainder of their lives to stop the new organ from being rejected by their own immune systems. Researchers are investigating new technologies that will reduce this foreign tissue rejection response. Some scientists are even investigating “xenotransplantation” – transplanting organs from animals into humans.

Until scientists find a new way to find organs for people in need, the work of non-profit organ procurement organizations will play a large role in finding and distributing body parts throughout the country.

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