Aimee Adelman was born with cystinosis, a rare metabolic disorder that damages various organs in the body. By the time she was a high school senior, she needed a kidney transplant.
Fortunately, her father was able to donate one of his kidneys, but a year later, a biopsy revealed Adelman had acute rejection and eventually would need another kidney.
“It basically is a very slow progression of rejection of that kidney,” says Adelman, now manager of education initiatives at Donate Life Northwest. She spent three years in college until symptoms of the kidney rejection worsened, putting her in the hospital with numerous complications and various periods of dialysis.
She received her second kidney transplant on July 24, 2011, an important day in her life. It was given by a deceased donor and has proven to be a near-perfect match.
Through Donate Life Northwest, Adelman has met many donor families — those individuals whose loved ones indicated they would donate their organs at the time of their death.
“It’s such an incredible experience to be able to meet those donor families,” she says, explaining that recipients and donor families can choose to write a letter to one another. “I’ve never gotten to meet mine, but I’ve had that experience to see how grateful (other donor families) are that their loved one was able to make this incredible gift. And now their loved one is living on and giving life to other people. And both recipients and donor families are so grateful for that process.”
Advances in medical technology are astounding, and it might seem that organ donations are no longer necessary. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy in the United States hit an all-time high this year.
Nevertheless, about 8,000 people in the United States — or 22 people a day — die each year awaiting an organ transplant.
The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) — a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that connects and serves the nationwide network of organizations, medical professionals, recipients and donors — provides up-to-date statistics of those waiting for a donation. It also provides current numbers of donations given and received during the past year.
Learn more at optn.transplant.hrsa.gov/data/.
Donors can register as early as age 13, and there is no age limit for registering as a donor. Never conclude that you’re too old, Adelman says.
“When it comes to organ donation, the age of a person is a factor,” she says, “but what we say at Donate Life is, ‘Don’t rule yourself out. We’re not health professionals, you’re not a health professional, so don’t make that decision.’”
One donor can save up to eight lives. Organs that can be donated and transplanted are kidneys, pancreas, liver, intestine, heart and lungs. And donations go beyond organs. Eyes, skin, bone, connective tissue, heart valves and veins all can be used through donation.
Cornea donation, for example, restores sight to thousands of people every year, and one tissue donor can impact more than 50 lives.
Donate Life America is a nationwide organization dedicated to “increasing the number of donated organs, eyes and tissue available for transplant to save and heal lives.”
As a small nonprofit that serves a very large area, Adelman says she is responsible to help dispel myths associated with organ donation. She encourages registered donors to have conversations with their families about it, and that making and communicating a decision ahead of time to be a donor can lessen pressure during a tragedy.
“We’re kind of a small nonprofit that serves a very large area,” she says.
One point she emphasizes is that there are various types of living donations, with kidneys being the most commonly-donated organ. Giving blood is a common non-organ donation, yet advancements in medical science are making possible partial donations of liver, lung and bone marrow.
“You can donate a small portion of your liver,” Adelman says. “Your liver is a regenerative organ. Actually, within 10 to 12 months, that liver can become full-size again for both the donor and the recipient.”
As Adelman knows personally, “you have two kidneys, you only need one,” she says. “About 80 percent of everyone on the waiting list is waiting for a kidney transplant, so there’s potential that those people could have a living donation as well.”
She says that currently there are 118,000 Americans waiting for a life-saving transplant, with more than 3,000 of them living in the Pacific Northwest.
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Aimee Adelman works for Donate Life Northwest.