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Remembering Those Who Give the "Gift of Life"

It's fitting that National Donor Day is February 14, a day we already associate with love. On this day, we raise awareness about organ donation and celebrate the lives of organ and tissue donors. Most people will eventually be affected by donation in their lives. They will either know someone who needs, or has received a life saving transplant. Or, they will learn that someone they know was a donor. 


What is the need for organ donation?

The need for organs is great and grows every day. There are more than 110,000 people waiting for organs in the United States. Every 10 minutes someone is added to the transplant list. In 2018, there were 10,700 organ donors, making it the eighth consecutive record-breaking year. 



How does the process of organ donation work? 

One organ donor can save up to 8 lives, but donation is a rare and special opportunity. It's only an option for about 1% of the population.

Hospitals follow referral criteria to ensure that every patient who is eligible to be a donor is identified -- and that their family is given the opportunity to say “yes” to donation. It begins with a referral by the hospital to the donation organization, who evaluates patients to determine if they are suitable to be donors.   

The donation organization accesses state and national donation registries to determine if the patient is registered to be a donor. If they determine that the patient is a potential donor, the donation team discusses donation with the family. 

Our goal is to help the family make the right decision for both patient and family and support them in this decision. Often, the conversation includes discussions about the kind of person their loved one was and if this gift would be consistent with their actions during their life. If they decide to proceed with donation, the health care team continues to treat the patient, but organ-specific evaluation begins so that we can match the recipient for our donor.  

Matching includes size, blood type, organ function, and geographic location of the recipient as most organs have a narrow window of time between recovery and transplant. During this time, the patient remains in the ICU, on a ventilator, until we determine the recipient. The donor goes to the operating room once we have identified recipients for the organs that will be transplanted and the recipient surgeons are ready. It’s a time-sensitive process, requiring that many people work together before we move to the OR for the life-saving organ recovery.


What is the impact of organ donation?

We know that there is a need for organs, but donation can also benefit the donor family in many ways. Families often tell us that donation was the only “good” that happened. That it was what kept them going during their darkest hours, knowing their loved one's story didn’t end, but continued. One donor dad refers to his daughter as “passing on” and not “passing away.” Donation can never make up for the loss of a loved one, but hopefully it can make it a little less painful. 


What is a donation coordinator? 

Donation coordinators are family advocates and part of the health care team. We ensure that families are given the choice to follow their own donation wishes. Donation coordinators facilitate these wishes regardless of the family’s decision. We have many resources that we provide to donor families. 


What is an honor walk?

This is when we, as staff members, line the halls between the ICU and the operating room as the donor and their family take their final walk together and the donor is brought to the operating room for the organ recovery.  

We hold this tribute at the request of the family. It has been extraordinarily impactful to them and to participating staff. Seeing our staff members from across the hospital line up to pay their respects and lend support to the family has meant so much to families, who share their gratitude with me over and over again. They see that they are not alone and that we are there for them. 

Families also fill out “Moment of Silence” cards in which they share stories about the donor. We read these to the recipient team members so they know more about the donor.   


What is the flag program? 

We have a flag program for each organ and tissue donor. We fly a flag in front of the UVM Medical Center for a week. Then, we send the flag to the family. If you see the “Donate Flag” flying under the US flag, know that this is in honor of someone who gave the “gift of life.” 

So, on February 14, join us in thanking those who have donated and send hope to those who are waiting. Donation shows us how generous and loving people can be as we witness lives being saved by the ultimate gift. 

If you have any questions about donation please reach out to Jennifer DeMaroney, donation coordinator at Jennifer.demaroney1@uvmhealth.org.