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Oklahomans urged to share the gift of life through organ donation

Phil Van Stavern, Chief Operating Officer for LifeShare of Oklahoma, received a transplanted kidney donated by his older brother Neil in 1988. Van Stavern is seen here with his grandson Nick. Photo provided

By Darla Shelden
Contributing Writer

With over 113,000 Americans waiting for organ transplants across the United States, nearly 900 are waiting for their transplants right here in Oklahoma. The waiting list far exceeds the number of organs available.
Many Oklahomans do not understand the need for donation and how it can save lives and improve the quality of life for so many. In 2011, 278 transplants were performed in Oklahoma, but sadly, there were 62 people who died while waiting for their life-saving surgeries.

Last month, LifeShare of Oklahoma celebrated National Donate Life Month for the 9th consecutive year. The month long celebration honors the generosity of organ, eye and tissue donors and their families and commemorates all transplant recipients in the United States. LifeShare is now focused on supporting Donate Life America’s new campaign, 20 Million in 2012, which looks to add 20 million new organ, eye and tissue donors to state donor registries in 2012.

While 2011 marked the achievement of 100 million designated donors in state donor registries across the country; the need for organ, eye and tissue transplants is steadily increasing. Adding more donors to every state registry is critical.

“It is more important than ever for folks to sign up to become organ, eye and tissue donors,” said Phil Van Stavern, Chief Operating Officer for LifeShare of Oklahoma. “As we honor those donors who have shared life with others, we encourage everyone to consider giving that precious gift.”

In the early 1980s, the arrival of the immunosuppressant drug cyclosporine made the transplantation of organs other than kidneys feasible. This development led individuals to appeal to the public through the media and their legislators for assistance in finding suitable donor organs.

In 2000, the Oklahoma Legislature created the Oklahoma Organ Donor Education and Awareness Program, which established a special fund to support activities that promote and encourage organ, eye and tissue donor education and awareness. Oklahomans can donate to the fund through their local tag agent’s office at the time they receive a driver’s license,ID card, when you complete a title transaction, or purchase a license plate.

Oklahomans can register as an organ, eye or tissue donor at their local tag agency, online at or by calling 1-800-826-LIFE (5433).

The law requires that tag agents and Department of Public Safety employees who issue licenses must ask each applicant if they would like to donate to the fund. Or equally as important, if they would like to be an organ, eye or tissue donor.

“Ideally, from what they call a ‘perfect donor,’ you can recover eight organs: the heart, both lungs, kidneys, the liver, the pancreas and small intestine, said Van Stavern.”Additionally, if that person becomes a tissue donor you could conceivably recover bone, eyes, skin, and connective tissue and potentially help as many as 50 people.”

Every 11 minutes another name is added to the national organ transplant waiting list and every day, 18 Americans die waiting for an organ transplant.

“In 2010, LifeShare Transplant Donor Services of Oklahoma reported 134 organ donors and 412 tissue donors for the year,” said Elmer Maddux, a heart transplant recipient and chair, Oklahoma Organ Donor Education and Awareness Program Advisory Council. “And last year the Oklahoma Lions Eye Bank recovered 342 corneas for transplant and research. We believe these donations were due in part to the educational efforts supported by the fund to promote organ, eye and tissue donation.”

When Dennis Godsey suffered a silent heart attack in 2003, the doctor was able to extend his life by implanting a pacemaker in his chest. He made it all the way until March 2009, but then required an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) to replace the pacemaker. Dennis was put on the waiting list for a heart transplant at that time.

In July 2009, Godsey received his new heart. He said, “What happened has been a miracle. The compassionate gift from a 49-year-old woman and her gracious family gave my family back a husband, father and grandfather. It has been such a blessing to be healthy again.”

When an organ procurement organization, such as LifeShare, contacts the nation’s organ transplant system, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the organ donor’s medical history, physical measurements, and blood type is entered into the database. Then the list of potential recipients is created in order of matching priority, which includes medical criteria, length of time waiting, blood type, body weight, size of recipient diseased organ, and severity of illness. Kidney and pancreas recipients are also matched by tissue (genetic) typing.

“Generally speaking, the person that is the worst, is the person that is first,” said Brian Jackson, LifeShare of Oklahoma Communications Specialist.

“There is nothing in the system that will allow a person to use their status to fast track themselves on the organ donation waiting list,” said Van Stavern. “The computer doesn’t see the person waiting as Steve Jobs or Dick Cheney. The computer is blind to a person’s status.”
There are nearly 1.8 million Oklahomans on the LifeShare Donor Registry, which is 48 percent of the state’s total population. Excluding minors, 63 percent of Oklahoma’s population is registered organ, eye and tissue donors, making it one of the most successful donor registries in the country.

“Transplant surgeries are almost always covered by a person’s private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid,” said Van Stavern. “There are some rare occasions when donor recipients don’t qualify for any of those methods of coverage, and in those situations often the family will begin fundraising efforts. The transplant centers often eat the costs of surgery rather than let someone die because they have no way of paying.”

Van Stavern said, “As far as the surgeries that we do when we recover organs for transplantation, once brain death has been declared, every medical charge from that point forward until the organ recovery has taken place and the body has been released to the funeral home of the families’ choice, all of those charges are paid for by LifeShare.”
Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced the addition of a new tool that will allow people to share their status as an organ donor on their timelines.

Users can go to their timeline, click on “Life Event,” select “Health and Wellness,” and add the new option “choose Organ Donor.” Then they can add where and when they registered and include a personal story, picture or video. If they’re not already an organ donor, Facebook offers a link to state or national donor registries to easily enroll.
In 1988, Van Stavern received a transplanted kidney from his older brother Neil. Now, as the COO of LifeShare Oklahoma, he spends his life helping those who have the same need for a life-saving transplant that he received.

“We recover every transplantable organ that we can recover,” said Van Stavern. “We need to spread the word that donation changes lives every day. These remarkable changes are made possible because someone like you made the decision to donate. You have the power to donate life. We urge everyone to act now.”

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