Up to 40,000 individuals might need a heart transplant, but just 2,300 receive one, according to Dr. Mark Zucker of Barnabas Health Care Center. The cardiologist treated Montclair State University student Ryan Miller who recently met the parents of the boy whose heart now beats in his chest. April is Organ Donation Awareness Month and Zucker sat down with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider to discuss organ donations and the importance of informing the public.
Zucker attributes the large disconnect between available organs to those in need to a donor gap. “There are not enough donors to provide the services for all of the individuals who might need a transplant,” he said.
While about 40 percent of Americans have signed their drivers licenses to be a potential donor, not everyone is a potential candidate. “Most people who die in the United States are over the age of 65 or 70 and in general we try to find donors in their 20s or 30s or younger,” Zucker said. “We’re trying to find a young heart … and that population of donors is smaller than you might think.”
Zucker explained that heart disease in young people can go undetected. “Children, teenagers and individuals in their 20s tend to look very healthy despite the presence of heart disease and you can easily be duped by that,” he said. “And Ryan was one of those classic cases where he was able to perform virtually all normal activities of daily living, and more, and nobody knew there was a problem going on.”
Zucker said the United Network for Organ Sharing, the national program that matches donors and recipients, is constantly being tweaked to improve the odds of a match occurring. “For the most part I would say that it’s quite effective,” he said.
Organ transplantation can be performed in a large age group from babies to those in their early 80s, Zucker said, so virtually the entire population can be a potential donor or recipient.
He also said people don’t need to fear that if they are organ donors their care will be in any way diminished. “We’re not even called in until a neurologist has already declared the individual brain dead and we have no contact with any of those individuals before organ transplantation,” he explained.
The bottom line is the system needs more potential donors.
“I think the drivers license signature is a critical component to this whole process of making sure that organs are available when organs are needed,” Zucker said.