Organ Transplants Up in New Jersey as Awareness of the Need Grows

Lilo H. Stainton | August 17, 2016 | Health Care
A new iPhone app that will make it easier than ever to register as a donor is expected to save more lives

organ transplant
The number of organ transplants in New Jersey increased by more than one-third in 2015 and a growing number of surgeries suggests that even more lives will be saved through these procedures this year.

But organ transplant advocates say their work is far from done. The lives of some 5,000 Garden State residents remain in limbo as they wait for the donation of a healthy heart, lung, or one of a half-dozen other organs approved for transplant. One person here dies every three days while waiting for surgery.

Interest in organ donation is likely to greatly expand this fall, when Apple releases a new iPhone with an app that enables users to register their gift of life online, with a few clicks. The computer giant announced in July it has created a partnership with Donate Life America that enables donors to enroll through their iOS 10 phones in a national database designed to match donor organs with patients most in need.

“That could be a real game changer,” said Joe Roth, president and CEO of NJ Sharing Network, a federally-designated organization that identifies, recovers, and places healthy organs. “With 100 million iPhones in the U.S., we think the potential is enormous.”

Like many states, New Jersey has long urged drivers to sign up as organ donors when they receive identification from the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission, Roth said. While cardholders once had to check a box and sign the back of their paper license, the process has since been added to the digital IDs.

But the sign-up process is not as easy as it could be, he said, prompting the sharing network to step up their advocacy in recent years. Roughly 2.6 million, or 40 percent, of the 6.5 Garden State license holders have registered as donors, he said, while some states have registered more than half of their drivers.

[related]To help engage new donors and expand the reach of their gifts, the sharing network recently linked up with the Donate Life America registry, Roth said. They will work together to screen organs that become available when someone dies, often by accident, and match them with the patient who is in most urgent need and who is the closest genetic match, regardless of where this person lives in the country.

Roth said it is also important for families to have open discussions about organ donation and their wishes. When a crisis occurs, talking about gifting body parts can be an unwelcome shock.

That’s an experience Stephanie Sorrentino knows all too well. The East Windsor woman, now 33, lost her husband Brad earlier this year – just 11 months after they had been married. Brad, who was 32, had indicated his willingness to donate on his license, but the couple had never discussed these intentions and Sorrentino had never considered the process.

“We were not talking about death in the first year of our marriage – no one my age has these conversations,” she said. “But that’s the kind of person he was.”

Sorrentino credits a nurse connected with the sharing network for guiding her through the process. “She helped me facilitate every hard and impossible decision I never thought I’d have to make,” she said. “It was an excruciating process. And she made the worst possible situation bearable.”

Over the course of an agonizing 40 hours, Sorrentino said she eventually made peace with her husband’s wishes. As a result of his gift, five patients received life-saving donations – including another 32-year-old man who was given his liver.

“There are things no one tells you about death,” she recalled. “I was completely uninformed – I never thought about it, never applied it to my own life. Never thought I would have to.”

Sorrentino hopes that her speaking out will prompt others to have that conversation she never could. The iPhone program, which allows people to register through a Health app, can only help, she said. “I feel people should talk about this, especially young people,” she said.

To continue to build awareness around their mission, the NJ Sharing Network will host a 5-kilometer fundraising run on August 21, at Brookdale Community College, in Lincroft. The group has held many events in Bergen and Union counties, but the Monmouth County run is a new addition this year to their 5K Celebration of Life series.

To help advance this cause, Sorrentino has gathered a team of more than 30 who raised nearly $5,000 towards the upcoming 5k. She is not alone: “Team Luke” involves the Bautista family and friends, walking to honor 15-year-old Luke, whose donated organs saved five lives in the tri-state area; “Team Sunflower” will celebrate the kidney received by Srinivas Garla; and team “Heartopia” will mark the one-year anniversary of Keath Gerald’s new heart and liver.

“These are very successful events and therapeutic for donor families and recipients,” Roth said. The group hopes to raise $1.25 million through the trio of events.