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Transplant Specialist Says Altruistic Organ Donations Are Increasing

SARAH GELBARD: Today is National Organ Donor Day and New York State has one of the lowest rates of organ donor registration in the country. Dr. Allison Fox is a liver transplant specialist and director of the living donor program at New York-Presbyterian. She says 16,000 patients are on the liver transplant list at any given time, and only 6 to 7,000 transplants are performed each year. The rest of them wait, and many die while they're waiting. But Dr. Fox has noticed a trend. More people are signing up to donate their organs to strangers. She calls this altruistic organ donation.

ALLISON FOX: Our center has recently started to see a lot of big rise in altruistic donors. So, people who hear about somebody needing a transplant on some kind of social media platform. And they kind of step forward and say, “Hey, I don't know this person from anybody, but I'm in a position where I can help and I’m healthy. And I want to give a piece of my liver to whoever you guys think needs it most.”

And we've seen a big uptrend in that over the last two years. And at first, we were hesitant to take on altruistic donors, but it has become an important organ pool for our patients. And I think we've done a very good job taking care of the donors in this situation, because they do have special needs considering they're not doing this for a loved one. They're just doing it out of the goodness of their heart.

Social media has played kind of a big part in this. I think that people are getting their stories out there. All these platforms have increased awareness about the fact that you can. Most people know, “Oh, I have two kidneys. I can donate a kidney.” But people don't know that live liver donation is even a thing that's done. The ability to spread information in a more rapid way across the internet... I think people sharing their stories on platforms like Facebook, saying, “My husband, my wife, my sibling is dying of liver disease and none of our family members are blood matches or compatible blood types, or none of us are eligible to donate. We just need help.”

People hear those stories and they want to be involved, and they want to help if they can. The other thing is, a lot of centers have really started advertising the idea of living donation more, which is I think overall the net effect of those things has led to a rise in the number of people who are coming forward to be evaluated as potential live donor.

GELBARD: Okay. And have you seen any significant issues in New York City in recent years that have hurt organ transplants? Any problems that come from a low level of donor registration?

FOX: New York is, like number 50, I think, of all the states in terms of rate for organ donation.

GELBARD: Why do you think that is?

FOX: The system has been a little bit broken. I also think there is a lot of stigma around organ donation, New York being such a diverse place. People come here from around the world and have reservations about signing the back of their license. And I also think that as a state, New York has not been as proactive as it could about increasing organ donation, but I think that there's a concerted effort to make things like that happen.

GELBARD: Can you tell our listeners how people can register to donate an organ?

FOX: They can register when they apply for their license to become an organ donor. They can also go online and register.

GELBARD: Thank you so much, and thank you for the work you do.

FOX: Take care. Thank you.


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