Coordinators work to boost organ donation

About 1.5 million patients suffer from organ failure in China every year, of whom one-fifth are suitable for organ transplant. But only 10,000 such transplants are done annually.

Cao Jing is used to being rejected, even by the same person over and over again.

“We have lived together for over two decades. It’s all meaningless if I cannot even protect his body,” a woman cried after Cao pleaded with her to donate her husband’s organs.

Cao is an organ transplant coordinator, a key role in the success of an organ donation and transplant program, in a hospital in east China’s Anhui Province. She helps recipients look for potential donors, and is responsible for the whole transplant process once an organ is matched.

For Cao and her colleagues, the most difficult part of the job is to console the families of the patients and persuade them to donate the organs. In China, even if a patient has registered as an organ donor, the donation can only be done with the consent of their family.

Organ donation is a sensitive topic that people do not like to discuss openly in China. In Chinese culture, a person’s body should remain intact, because they believe there is afterlife.

“I will not give up, but I think they need more time,” said Cao. “In fact, there’s only a 1-in-10 chance that there will be a match,” she added.

Though her efforts were in vain, Cao returned to the ICU and checked the patient’s information. “The patient is 46 years old and had no serious health problems. All organs are in a stable condition,” she repeated.

The patient has been declared brain dead and is completely reliant on a ventilator and medicine to maintain a regular heartbeat, according to Tao Xiaogen, the patient’s doctor.

“A patient like this can help at least five people by donating two kidneys, a liver, and a pair of corneas,” said Cao.

But Cao herself is somewhat ambivalent. On one hand, she hopes the patient can recover; on the other, she wishes patients diagnosed as brain dead can have their organs donated to save more lives.

Data from the National Health Commission showed about 1.5 million patients suffer from organ failure in China every year, of whom one-fifth are suitable for organ transplant. However, only 10,000 such transplants are done annually. So the coordinators are vital in the push for wider acceptance of organ donation in China.

Guo Yong joined the team of transplant coordinators in central Hunan Province in 2011. The 34-year old has handled more than 100 transplant cases in the past seven years.

“Most of the time we’re on the road to different hospitals around the province, as we have to juggle between various departments for a case. I have had two cars break down. The newest was purchased a year ago and has already run over 70,000 kilometers,” said Guo.

“Driving too much has left me with a serious lumbar muscle strain. Every time it hits, I have to lie in bed for about 10 days and that’s often the only vacation I get,” Guo said with a bitter smile.

“There are more than 200 procedures involved, from discovering a potential donor to a successful transplantation, and every step needs the participation of transplant coordinators,” said Yao Ziqin, head of the Organ Procurement Organization office at a hospital in Anhui.

The OPO office Yao works at was established in March last year and has already helped complete 44 organ donations. Nationwide, a total of 2,200 registered coordinators have saved more than 50,000 lives since China initiated the organ donation program in March 2010, according to Wang Jianfeng with the Red Cross Society of Anhui.

In addition, an online system — China Organ Transplant Response System — was launched in 2013. It can automatically search for the best-matched registered donor for a patient, which has significantly increased the efficiency of organ transplant.

According to the Red Cross Society of China, the number of organ donors reached 5,177 in 2017, from just 34 in 2010, but there is still a long way to go.

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