Organ Donation Transforms Lives


by D. Michael Baxter, MD
Chair, Department of Family and Community Medicine
Reading Health System

As physicians know, organ donations improve people’s health and save lives. One organ, tissue and eye donor may save up to eight lives and enhance the lives of up to 75 others. Nationally, 118,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant, and 22 people die each day because an appropriate match was not found in time. As physicians know, organ donations improve people’s health and save lives. One organ, tissue and eye donor may save up to eight lives and enhance the lives of up to 75 others. Nationally, 118,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant, and 22 people die each day because an appropriate match was not found in time.

In our region, more than 5,400 people are waiting for an organ transplant. To date, less than 50 percent of Pennsylvania residents are registered to donate their organs.

Physicians can help improve these statistics, and in doing so, enhance the health and well-being of residents in Berks County and beyond.

Reading Health System currently is participating in the 2017 Pennsylvania Donate Life Hospital Challenge, which is supported by the Hospital and HealthSystem Association of Pennsylvania in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and two regional organ procurement organizations – the Center for Organ Recovery & Education, and the Gift of Life Donor Program.

The challenge, which runs April 1 through August 31, 2017, aims to encourage Pennsylvania hospitals to implement strategies that increase awareness and enrollment in state organ donor registries

Physicians, particularly primary care physicians, can play a role in raising awareness as well. Primary care physicians who talk with patients at annual physicals can help educate patients about the benefits of registering as an organ donor.

Physicians are tremendously busy, and hearing that there’s another potential topic to add to a patient’s annual checkup may sound daunting. But it needn’t be a long conversation. Do you ask patients if they’ve considered advance planning directives? Asking if the person has considered organ donation can be a simple part of that conversation.

As physicians, we have a responsibility to advance the health of the community at large. By encouraging people to consider organ donation, we are advocating for health and wellness in our community.

Some patients may not be aware that it is possible to register as an organ donor. Others may hesitate to register because they harbor misconceptions about what donor registration actually means. Physicians can help dispel these misconceptions and provide contact information to donor organizations for patients who have more questions.

What are some of these misconceptions? For starters, some people express concern that they’re too old or not healthy enough to donate organs. In fact, anyone can register as a donor – regardless of age, race or medical condition. A person’s medical condition at the time of death will determine what organs and tissues can be donated.

Another misconception is that if a person registers as an organ donor, medical personnel will not save his or her life in an emergency, because they’ll want to utilize the organs. Quite obviously, medical personnel would never consider doing that, but nonetheless, it is a concern that people express. As physicians, we can help patients understand that their life and well-being will always come first. We can explain that the organ procurement organization will only be notified if life-saving efforts are unsuccessful, and that the organization will not contact the transplant team until the person’s family has approved the donation.Patients also worry that there may be costs involved with organ donations. There are no costs. The organ procurement organization handles the costs of removing and transporting the organs.

Yet another misconception is that organ donation is against certain religions. In actuality, all major religions in the United States support organ donation as an act of compassion and generosity. As physicians, we can encourage patients to contact their religious leader if they have questions or concerns about the tenets of their religion.

Some patients are concerned that their families won’t be able to have an open casket at a memorial service, because the organ donation will disfigure their loved one’s body. Organ removals are similar to any other type of surgery, and no disfiguration takes place.

Our role as physicians includes more than simply dispelling misconceptions. In fact, we can help patients understand the powerful impact of organ donation. According to Donate Life America:

  • More than 33,000 patients began new lives in 2016 thanks to organ transplants (from 8,500 deceased and 6,000 living donors).
  • Approximately 48,000 patients have their sight restored through cornea transplants each year.• Someone is added to the organ transplant list every 10 minutes
  • Sadly, over 8,000 people die each year because the organs they need are not donated in time.

In 2016, Reading Health System made 1,046 referrals to the Gift of Life. Of those referrals, 15 patients became potential organ donors and seven of the 15 patients went on to become organ donors. In the first two months of 2017, Reading Health had two donors who gave a total of seven organs and nine other people who became tissue donors.

According to Donate Life America, a national system matches available organs from the donor with people on the waiting list based on blood type, body size, how sick they are, donor distance, tissue type and time on the list. Race, income, gender, celebrity and social status are never considered.

The organization also notes that while 95 percent of Americans say they support organ donation, only 30 percent of Americans know the essential steps to becoming a donor.

That’s where physicians can help. Like any conversation we have with patients, talking to patients about organ donor registration requires being open, being mindful of the patient’s concerns, and being a good listener. It’s important to remember that patients may have something in their history that triggers upset related to organ donation. That’s why it’s critical that we listen and be gentle in discussing the issues and answering patients’ questions. When we don’t have an answer, it is important to say so and to send them to an appropriate source – either Gift of Life (http://www.donors1.org) or Donate Life America (https://www.donatelife.net).

Discussing organ donor registration provides an opportunity to educate patients who may not have known of the option or who may have been working under preconceived notions. Transplant recipients rely on the generosity of others, and that generosity can impact and transform another person’s life.


darrel “RIP” Harris

Advanced stage glaucoma is difficult. There are days when your vision is decent and then there are days….well ….that you wish it was better. You are forced to make accommodations in order to perform normal daily activities. After 10 eye surgeries, you hope for a little luck, a change in momentum, something that will provide some
long lasting relief from the worry.

Last fall I was hit with a new challenge. Glaucoma doctor, Dr. Francisco Tellez at Berks Eye, a skillful, dedicated and compassionate doctor who has been providing me with excellent care, told me last spring that the blurriness I was experiencing in my right eye would not respond to the prescribed eye drops that I was taking and that I should consult a cornea surgeon. In addition, he said that good outcomes can often result from a cornea transplant. He further carefully explained the process. This wasn’t a total surprise as he had mentioned the possibility sometime earlier.

Of course I researched the subject at length and learned all about donor tissue and how the surgery is performed. I met with Dr. Kevin Shah at Eye Consultants of Pa, who recently relocated to Wyomissing from the Cleveland Clinic. I realized after the first meeting that he was a young, talented, enthusiastic doctor with a wealth of experience. I had successful right eye cornea transplant surgery in September and then underwent the same procedure on my left eye at the end of February, which was also successful.

It’s very apparent to me that the true heroes in this story are the unknown cornea tissue donors. Without their generosity and concern for other unknown persons, this story would not have a happy ending. They unselfishly give to other less fortunate individuals. Without this surgery I would not be able to enjoy the many privileges in life such as watching my grand children grow, play golf – my favorite hobby- or drive a car. To the donors whose tissue is helping my quality of life, I put forward a heartfelt THANK YOU!

Editor’s note: According to Dr. Shah, Mr. Harris’ vision had dropped to approximately 20/100 in each eye prior to his corneal transplant surgery. After surgery, it improved to 20/30 in the right eye and 20/20 in the left eye.


bill pors

I awoke each morning and looked at the world through a veil of fog that would only start to dissipate hours later. The Fuchs Dystrophy that caused my corneas to fog got progressively worse during the 6-7 years before my surgery. It was very difficult to see the computer screen and even to clearly see the students standing in my doorway, in my job as a high school counselor. Driving became difficult and activities such as golf were impossible to enjoy (I could not track the ball through the air once I hit it… even though most times it landed in the woods or the water, which had nothing to do with the Fuchs!).

My optometrist, Dr. Leslie Brodsky, carefully cared for my Fuchs and my overall vision until he indicated it was time for me to have the corneal surgery. He referred me to Dr. Jonathan Primack for the procedure. Dr. Primack’s knowledge, experience and wonderful bedside manner quickly relieved any fears I had of proceeding with the surgery. He recommended that I have my cataracts taken care of first, which he masterfully completed. My vision before this surgery was approximately 20/900 and after closer to 20/20. One can imagine how genuinely happy and thankful I was not to have to wear glasses for the first time in 55 years! I then had DSAEK surgery on my right eye and a few months later DMEK surgery on the left eye. I could finally see clearly upon waking and throughout the day and am now able to enjoy all the activities I participated in prior to the Fuchs diagnosis.

Words can’t express how appreciative I am to my doctors and the staff that took care of me throughout this process. Of course, none of this would have been possible if not for the caring individuals who donated the cornea tissue used in my surgeries. I will never know who they are but I’m eternally grateful to them.


jeremy renninger

Jeremy with his aunt,
Alice Blanchard, who donated a kidney for her nephew.

The unexpected diagnosis of Kidney Failure came at a very inconvenient time in my life. I had just gotten married earlier in the year and I was excelling at my sales career at Automatic Data Processing. Life was just coming together and beginning to make sense when I was told by the doctors it wouldn’t be long before I needed a kidney.

Within a few months I was being treated at home with peritoneal dialysis. It wasn’t the ideal situation, but it allowed me to continue working my sales job during the day so I could get treatment at night while I slept. The technology was amazing, however, I didn’t have a lot of energy by the end of the day. I felt wiped out. One of the worst parts for me was having a restricted diet. I worked in food service for many years and I enjoy so many different foods. That part was very hard to deal with.

Jeremy and his wife, Amanda, with their son, Christian

Luckily, I had a younger aunt who is a pediatric nurse in the area and she understood the severity of what I was going through. Without hesitation she got tested to see if she was a match and she was. Within a year of my starting on dialysis I was given the gift of a perfectly functioning kidney. Then four months after the transplant I was blessed with the birth of my first son, Christian. The timing of how everything worked out was perfect. I wasn’t tethered to a machine every night and was able to help out at night with our newborn. I also now have the energy to play with my son. Thank god for my aunt and kidney donors.

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