The Southwest Transplant Alliance set a new record in October for the number of organs it recovered for transplantation for its statewide partners.
In October, the nonprofit coordinated 136 organ transplants from 42 patients. Since October 1987, the most ever recovered by an OPO in Texas was 127, a record that was also set by Southwest Transplant Alliance last April.
The Dallas-based nonprofit is a federally designated organ procurement organization (OPO) that serves as a bridge between organ donors, the recipients, and the hospitals that are caring for both sets of patients. Hospitals that have a possible donor are required by law to contact an organ procurement organization once brain death is declared a possibility.
The OPO monitors the federal list of recipient hopefuls to find a possible recipient and then coordinates efforts from start to finish to procure the organs—its employees get permission from the donor family, they schedule private flights or organize rides for the transplant surgeons, they’re present in the operating room while the organs are procured, and they also follow up with the families after the surgery.
“One of the top questions on these people’s minds is, why is this senseless thing happening to us?” says Chad Trahan, STA’s director of clinical services. “We get to offer them just one little shred of purpose. We see time and time again how much meaning this has for these families when they get to see a small part of their loved one live on in someone else.”
The nonprofit has seen significant growth in recent years. From 2013 to 2014, the OPO increased organ donations by 28 percent. From 2012, it’s jumped by 38 percent. Last year, it successfully transplanted 1,000 organs from 322 donors—the highest number in its history. There are 58 organ procurement organizations in the country, three of which are in Texas. STA is now the third highest in the nation.
“We tend to be fairly aggressive,” Trahan says. “We don’t give up easily on placing organs, so if we feel like an organ has a 1 in 1,000 chance in being transplanted, we will go through the placement process and work with centers to see if there’s anything we can do to get the organ transplanted.”
Placing organs can be tricky. First, the recipient’s blood type has to correspond with the donor’s. The organs also have to be intact: Many donors are victims of trauma, which means that their internal organs could have been damaged during the event that caused the brain death. Too, there’s the matter of pre-existing, unidentified diagnoses. For instance, if a donor patient has coronary artery disease, the heart is not usable.
Distance is also a concern. Sometimes, there won’t be patients within the region compatible with the donor organ. In those cases, STA has to coordinate with other organ procurement organizations and find a surgeon willing to go beyond their own region to get an organ. The target for a heart, for instance, is about four hours from the time it’s removed to the time it’s transplanted.
“There’s always this balance between those two things: who needs it the worst and who will utilize it the longest,” Trahan says. “Part of the equation is who is the sickest and part of the equation is who is the closest; the longer it’s out of the body the more likely it is to fail.”
STA serves about 150 hospitals in North Texas, Baytown near Houston, Bryan/College Station, Corpus Christi, Midland/Odessa, Temple, and Tyler. The need for organs is still substantial: In Texas, more than 13,300 need one. Nationally, 122,000 patients are awaiting a transplant.
“It is truly an honor to serve the people within the communities where we live and work as a team,” said Patti Niles, president and CEO of STA. “We are extremely grateful to individuals who made the generous decision to be organ, eye and tissue donors, and to the families who gave others the precious gift of life during, what was perhaps, one of the most difficult times in their lives.”