Health Beat: Rationing organs, rationing lives

Health Beat: Rationing organs, rationing lives

COLUMBUS, Ohio - More than 120,000 people need life-saving organ transplants, and each day 18 of them die waiting for one.

With the need outstripping the supply, doctors have to make tough decisions about who gets a new heart or a new liver and who doesn't.

Mark Johnson has been married 29 years, has four kids, and years of ventricular tachycardia — a rapid heartbeat that led to sudden deaths — but he would always come back. His wife Lori knew he needed a new heart and fast.

"I just knew that he wasn't going to last much longer if he didn't receive a new heart," Lori Johnson said.

Mark Johnson's doctor labeled him "sickest of the sick."

"We kept him in the hospital until we could find the right heart based upon the blood type, the height, and the weight," said Dr. Robert Higgins, director, Comprehensive Transplant Center, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

A good organ match is only one of the criteria doctors use to decide on a transplant. Others are: is the donor near the patient? Is the patient compliant—good at following medical regimen? Is the patient urgent and emergent, or sickest of the sick?

"It was a matter of waiting until you're sick enough to be on the list, but not so sick that the transplant's not going to help you," said Mark Johnson.

After four months, Higgins gave Mark a new heart, a second chance.

"In doing so, we save lives, hopefully for five, or 10, or maybe even 20 years," Higgins said.

Thousands of people on the list, however, die waiting.

"Only about 10,000 organ donors are available in the United States. The challenge is there are 120,000 people waiting for life-saving, life-enhancing organ transplants," Higgins explained.

With those odds, Mark Johnson said he feels blessed.

"Just being able to have a heart at this point is, is just beyond words," he said.

Higgins said it is critically important for good donor candidates to give their organs, but added that tissue donation is even more needed.

Donated corneas, skin and bone tissue enhance even more lives.

To learn more about becoming a donor, visit the United Network for Organ Sharing's website.

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