When a young Australian woman suffered burns over two-thirds of her body after a freak firestorm tore through the ultra-marathon she was running in 2011, it was a tissue donation company based in Central New Jersey that saved her life.
Turia Pitt was a 24-year old elite athlete, model, and mining engineer when she was airlifted from the Outback to a hospital for the first of some 200 surgeries to remove the damaged skin, protect the organs underneath, and help her heal. A plastic skin substitute protected her from fatal infection at first, but her body began to shut down and doctors knew human skin grafts were needed to keep her alive.
Unfortunately, there was no skin available on the island nation. (In fact, Australia’s limited supply had been shipped to New Zealand as part of an emergency plan to address a potential terrorist attack on the Rugby World Cup, which was occurring at the time.)
Pitt’s surgeons quickly put out a global request for tissues and the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation (MTF), based in Edison, answered the call. The nonprofit tissue bank identified donors in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin and — after her medical team convinced Australian authorities to waive the usual ban on human tissues imports — the skin was shipped Down Under so Pitt could receive the critical grafts.
Once these epidermal layers took hold, her liver, kidneys, and other organs began to recover; unlike most other organs, skin grafts do not require a biological or even blood-type match between the donor and recipient.
“I’m not being melodramatic, but the skin from America, from the MTF, was lifesaving,” Pitt, now 29, recalled last week after meeting with staff from the NJ Sharing Network, an organization based in New Providence that recovers organs and tissues — and helped process and ship the samples that saved her life.
Pitt, who now works to raise awareness about the importance of tissue donation, will be one of MTF’s guests of honor on the Donate Life float in the upcoming Rose Bowl Parade, on January 2 in California. Pitt has regained her status as an elite athlete and said she “resolved to live life to the best of my ability” because she didn’t want those donor families to think she wasn’t grateful.
Nationwide, roughly 15,000 donors contributed organs that were used in more than 30,000 transplants in 2015, according to data compiled from multiple federal departments and published on organdonor.gov. The exact number of tissue donors is not available because there is no single repository, but it is estimated there are 30,000 to 40,000 tissue donors nationwide, resulting in 1.5 million tissue transplants per year. But at least 119,000 people remain on the waitlist for organs — including some 5,000 in New Jersey — and 22 of them pass away each day while waiting.
Tissue donation, in particular, has significant impact. Individuals who agree to gift their internal organs can save eight lives; a cornea donation restores sight for two others. But sharing one’s tissues can “heal the lives of 75 people,” according to Donate Life America, an online registry. Tissue donation can include heart valves, musculoskeletal tissue, ligaments and tendons, but skin has some of the most widespread uses. While these elements must be recovered within 24 hours of death, they can be processed and stored for later use.
“Skin is an amazing, amazing tissue,” explained George Herrera, the vice president of donor services at MTF. The company can separate skin samples so that the outer epidermal layer is used for grafts, like in Pitt’s surgery, and the inner layers are used as subdermal structure or for delicate padding. “It can be used as a scaffold for the body to heal itself,” he said.
Herrera said the work of his organization often extends outside the borders of the United States. And while other countries, like Australia, have tissue banks — and caring individuals willing to donate — few have the extensive networks of donor organizations and other infrastructure that has developed in the U.S., he said.
In fact, Newark’s University Hospital was honored earlier this month by the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the NJ Sharing Network for its work to promote organ donation, particularly within the African American community. The Rutgers University teaching hospital worked to educate and register donors from among their staff, patients, and visitors.
The campaign has benefitted from the work of Patti Jackson, an organ donation advocate, whose decision to donate the organs of her 13-month-old daughter Zoe, who died in 2011, enabled three other children to be saved with gifts of a heart, liver, and kidneys. The Jackson family will also be honored as guests on the Donate Life float at the Rose Bowl Parade.
“Donating Zoe’s organs to children in need was the best decision I ever made,” Jackson said, at the ceremony. “She was such a force of life from the moment she was born, and it gives us so much joy to know that she was able to help three children live healthy lives. We are so proud that her spirit lives on.”
But the push to increase awareness must continue, NJ Sharing Network president Joe Roth underscored. While 95 percent of those surveyed support the concept, less than half sign up to donate their organs, federal findings show. In New Jersey, organ donation registration is tied to motor vehicle licensing and while the number of donors is increasing, only 40 percent — or 2.6 million of the state’s 6.5 registered drivers — have pledged their commitment. (Some states, including Montana, Alaska and Washington, have registered more than 80 percent of their populations, according to organdonor.gov.)
Roth said organ and tissue networks have seen a boost from a new iPhone 7 app that debuted this fall, with the potential to reach tens of millions of users. The app, which is included in the new phone, makes it easy to sign up for organ donation. It also links to the Donate Life website. “Its going great guns,” Roth said of the new mobile option. “Any vehicle to help get out the message is welcome.”
State lawmakers are also seeking to make it easier for residents to become donors. An assembly measure (A-4230) which received unanimous support earlier this month, would require health insurance plans —including those covering some 700,000 public workers — to educate members about organ and tissue donation.