By Juli Oberlander
Fifty Nebraskans will die each year because they will not receive an organ or tissue transplant, according to the Nebraska Organ Recovery, or NOR.
That means one Nebraskan dies every week waiting for a transplant that never arrives.
To help increase Nebraska’s organ donor registry, Tom Neal, NOR public relations coordinator, gives more than 200 presentations each year including a recent talk at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Neal provides compelling statistics to capture the attention of his audience such as nearly 500 Nebraskans are among the more than 122,000 in the United States waiting for an organ transplant.
Any Nebraskan age 16 or older can donate organs, tissue, bone and corneas, which are extracted after death with no disfigurement of the body.
The demographic 16- to 20-year-olds are in the lowest percentile of registered organ donors. Neal said NOR has problems reaching young Nebraskans because of changing trends in social media.
“We’re just as fast as people’s parents,” Neal said. “It’s tough to capture the attention of (young people).”
As Facebook becomes less popular and teenagers move to Instagram, Neal said it can be difficult for NOR to reach that population through its various social media accounts.
While Nebraskans over 50 years old are easier to connect with, Neal said the group tends to think they are too old to donate organs.
Neal gave an example of a 106-year-old English woman who restored sight to two people by donating her corneas upon her death.
“We’re out there trying to dispel that myth and change the people’s thinking,” Neal said.
Neal said the need for organs, especially kidneys, is always present. Yet, only 56 percent of eligible Nebraskans are registered in the state registry. Meanwhile, 72 percent of Iowans and more than 80 percent of Coloradans are registered to donate in their states.
Neal said NOR respects the choice to avoid donating. Nebraskans wishing to donate can register at a branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles or through the NOR website. Donation is anonymous and Nebraskans can change their decision to register at any time.
Neal said an important goal of the agency is to help grieving families as well as supervise the donation process, which begins once the donor is pronounced brain dead.
Another myth is the belief doctors don’t work hard to save an organ donor’s life. Even if someone is registered as an organ donor, doctors do everything they can to save patients’ lives before brain death, Neal said.
After a patient dies, Neal said counselors and mental health professionals meet with the family to discuss medical testing as well as the grieving process.
Neal said it’s “amazing” how quickly the family transitions from grief to concern for transplant recipients.
“They shift their focus to ‘I want my loved one to leave a legacy,’” Neal said.
Neal said NOR has facilitated meetings between donor families and transplant recipients.
He said those meetings are “so powerful.”
“I’ve gotten a chance to see the video of some of the meetings,” Neal said. “It keeps me going.”
Neal said Nebraska has an important role to play in the national need for organ donations. Nebraska has led the country in organs per donor, providing about three organs per donor in recent years.
While a little more than half of Nebraskans are registered as organ donors, Neal said he hopes the percentage will increase in the near future. The outcome of the donation process can be impactful for donor families and transplant recipients alike.
“It’s amazing knowing that, yes, it was a senseless tragedy that their loved one died,” Neal said, “but they’re living on through someone else.”
Established in 1977, NOR is one of 58 federally designed organ procurement organizations that provide medical procedures for recipients and support for donor families. NOR is a nonprofit agency independent of hospitals and transplant centers.
For more information about NOR, visit Nedonation.org.