Every 10 minutes, a new person is added to the organ transplant waiting list. Find out what goes into registering to be an organ donor.
Stephen J. Beard/IndyStar
My mother got her new heart on her wedding anniversary.
She’d been in New York Presbyterian Hospital for more than five months waiting for someone else to die so that she may live. Suffering from congestive heart failure, she was part of a community there of people hoping they could each live long enough for the right heart to become available.
There was a young mother whose heart had been damaged by a virus. There was a woman who entertained fellow patients by playing piano. There was a man waiting for his third heart.
These people all lived their lives the best they could while waiting to find out if they would live or die. They built up their strength — and their odds of surviving a transplant — exercising by pushing their laden IV poles in circuits around the hospital floor. They debated whether they wanted to know all the gory details of what could go wrong.
They complained about the hospital food, and marked each other’s family events together, usually with home-made feasts brought to the hospital from the outside world.
When someone got a heart, the other patients would gather around and celebrate as the recipient was wheeled away.
For everyone, the wait was agonizing.
Some would watch the George Washington Bridge through the hospital windows wondering if there would be a fatal wreck that would give them life.
That’s the perversity of needing an organ transplant. In many cases, someone else has to die for you to live. That point was not lost on the patients who waited with my mother for their new hearts to arrive. But they also knew people were going to die anyway. Better that some good come out of it.
Today, a spike in overdose deaths from the opioid crisis has led to record numbers of organs being available for transplant. The deaths of people who are abusing prescription drugs are serving, in many instances, to extend the lives of people who need new hearts, lungs, livers and kidneys.
Reading about this sliver of light that is cutting through the darkness of this overwhelming tragedy of drug dependency that has gripped the U.S. reminds me of the struggle that my mother went through, the excruciatingly painful journey she traversed just to stay a little longer with her family.
People would tell my mother how brave she was. She was literally going to have her heart removed and replaced with a stranger’s. The very idea is terrifying.
But she didn’t feel brave. She had no choice. She just wanted to live.
My sister-in-law was pregnant, and my mom desperately wanted to be there for the birth of my nephew. My niece, Lisa, was just a toddler. My mother wanted to dance at my niece’s wedding. She had so much living to do. She had no choice.
That was nearly 20 years ago.
Then, according to government statistics, there were about 60,000 people on waiting lists for organ transplants. Now, it’s about double that.
Back then, there was a severe donor shortage. And even though the need is greater, the number of donors has not risen fast enough to keep up with the demand. Even with the opioid epidemic cutting short so many lives.
Every 10 minutes, another person is added to the list. Every day, 22 people die waiting for a transplant.
Even though 95 percent of American adults support organ transplants, only 54 percent are signed up as donors.
Last year, there were 33,611 organ transplants performed in the U.S.
My mom, Grace, was one of the lucky ones. She got her heart. She was there at the hospital when my nephew was born a month later. She was at his christening on Valentine’s Day.
Never a public speaker or a joiner before, my mother started advocating for organ donation. She wanted to serve as an example, to help people understand.
This month is National Donate Life Month, an opportunity to raise awareness about organ, eye, tissue, marrow, platelet and blood donation. People can register at organdonor.gov.
We never knew if her donor — a 36-year-old man — was registered or if that generous decision was made by his grieving family. In either case, that decision meant that a part of him continued to live on. His heart beat in my mother’s chest.
That heart transplant added nearly 10 years to her life.
She didn’t make it to my niece’s wedding. She died when Lisa was just a kid.
But she got to know her grandchildren. She saw my wedding 1,000 miles away when we streamed it live online.
She had 10 more years on this earth because someone else was an organ donor.
Elaine Silvestrini was a reporter for The Asbury Park Press from 1987 to 2002. She now lives in Orlando where she writes for Drugwatch, a consumer education website about dangerous drugs and medical devices. Elaine's mother, Grace, received her heart transplant on Oct. 24, 1998. Grace Silvestrini died May 28, 2008.
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