A while ago, my friend Erica and I discussed the remote possibility that being an organ donor could be a disadvantage were you to get into a critical accident. In the case that you got into an accident and you were hovering between life and death, if the paramedics thought that there was a good chance you wouldn’t make it despite their best efforts, then they would be less inclined to help you and to “waste” resources trying to save you. The reasoning is that even if you died, your death would not be a complete waste since your organs could be harvested and used to help others.
All New York state license holder have the option of checking a box on the back of their license identifying themselves as an organ donor. However, even after indicating your consent, you must go online and sign up on the New York State Donate Life Registry. In general, in the US very few choose to be organ donors.
Chart from: http://www.donatelifeny.org/about-donation/data/#Data NYS1
In the modern day, although illness such as kidney failure may no longer be a death sentence, it often signifies a future dependent upon expensive, time-consuming dialysis sessions until you can find an organ donor, if you’re lucky enough. Often, those in need of organs will look to their family members, but family members are not always matches, or either willing or able to donate organs (if you’re heart failed, your brother won’t exactly have a spare to give). Your next option is to join the donor registry and to wait, hoping that you’ll make it to the top before your body gives out.
In an op-ed of the New York Times (read here), 21 year old Alexander Berger wrote about his decision to donate one of his kidneys to an anonymous recipient he had never met.
“Most people think this sounds like an over-the-top personal sacrifice. But the procedure is safe and relatively painless. I will spend three days in the hospital and return to work within a month. I am 21, but even for someone decades older, the risk of death during surgery is about 1 in 3,000. My remaining kidney will grow to take up the slack of the one that has been removed, so I’ll be able do everything I can do now. And I’ll have given someone, on average, 10 more years of life, years free of the painful and debilitating burden of dialysis.”
If the donation process is so easy and saves lives, then why don’t more people do it? Berger argues that it’s the stigma. While medical advancements have made organ donation much safer and much less painful, the act still seems crazy to most. Berger considers a major obstacle the ban on compensation for organ donation. He argues that a well-regulated system where “only the government or a chosen nonprofit would be allowed to purchase the kidneys, and they would allocate them on the basis of need rather than wealth, the same way that posthumously donated organs are currently distributed,” could help eliminate rather than fuel a black market for organs. He insists that this system would not exploit the poor, young, or minorities (citing as an example the legalization of surrogate mothers) but would help those in stable, well-off conditions find happiness in performing a service to help others.
To me it still seems like a big step between agreeing to donate your organs posthumously and donating one while you are still alive. I think our instincts are always in self preservation and it’s hard not to think “what if my other kidney fails?” or “what if the operation just happens to go horribly wrong?”