Surgeons turned down Terra Goudge for the liver transplant that was her only shot at surviving a rare cancer. Her tumor was too advanced, they said — even though Goudge had a friend ready to donate, no matter those odds.
“I have a living donor — I’m not taking away from anyone. I’m trying to save my own life,” she pleaded. Finally, the Los Angeles woman found a hospital on the other side of the country that let the pair try.
People lucky enough to receive a kidney or part of a liver from a living donor not only cut years off their wait for a transplant, but those organs also tend to survive longer. Yet living donors make up a fraction of transplants, and their numbers have plateaued amid barriers that can block otherwise willing people from giving. Among them: varying hospital policies on who qualifies and the surprising financial costs that some donors bear.
Now researchers are exploring ways to lift those barriers and ease the nation’s organ shortage.
“We just want people to be given the chance to at least entertain this as a possibility,” said Dr. Abhinav Humar, transplant chief at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where Goudge ultimately received part of friend Amy Aleck’s liver.
Thousands of people die each year waiting for an organ transplant. Nearly 14,000 are on the waiting list for a liver transplant. Of 8,082 transplants last year, just 367 were from living donors, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, which oversees the nation’s transplant system. Living kidney donations are more common but still not enough to meet the need. About 95,000 people are on the kidney waiting list. Of 19,849 transplants last year, 5,811 were from living donors.
Also troubling, black and Hispanic patients are less likely than whites to receive a kidney from a living donor, and a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year found the disparity is growing.
One hurdle is economic. The transplant recipient’s insurance pays the donor’s medical bills. But donors are out of work for weeks recuperating. The U.S. Labor Department last month made clear that a donor’s job can be protected under the Family Medical Leave Act. But that’s unpaid leave — and donors lose income if their employer doesn’t allow some form of paid time off. They also may have other expenses such as travel and hotel bills for visits to a far-away transplant center.