by Nathaniel Kim, MD | Internal Medicine Resident, PGY-2
In the midst of the COVID pandemic, heroes and heroines come in many forms. Frontline workers, especially in the medical field, are often the most apparent and in the public eye during these challenging times. But one of my heroes during this pandemic showed up in a hospital bed. Even though his life may have been claimed due to COVID, his legacy lives on because of his willingness to donate his body for science and for life.
I met our hero towards the end of his story but based on the number of family and friends who visited him during the hospitalization it was apparent what sort of meaningful life he led. His family came to the difficult decision after much deliberation about transitioning his care from medical management towards comfort measures. Part of that discussion involved our hero’s willingness to donate his kidneys to improve someone else’s life and his lungs to advance our understanding of COVID.
CODE HONOR is a growing recognition by the medical community about one of the highest acts of altruism: organ donation.1 When the code was called, numerous healthcare workers from all parts of the hospital came to pay their respects and to show honor, lining the intensive care unit and operating room hallways. Surrounded by his friends and family with country music playing in the background, our hero was escorted to the final phase of his journey and graced with gratitude as demonstrated by our healthcare staff.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, in 2020 there were approximately 117,290 Americans on the transplant waiting list.2 One deceased donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and upwards to 75 lives through tissue donation.3 Donated organs include heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, small intestines, hands, face, and uterus. Donated tissues include corneas, skin, middle ear veins, heart valves, tendons, ligaments, bones, and cartilage. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, in 2020 there were approximately 117,290 Americans on the transplant waiting list.2 The top three organ requests were kidney (97,830), liver (11,945), followed by heart (3,580). Since 1988, there have been over 850,000 transplants within the US.3
Specifically, in the context of COVID, organ transplantation is an unknown territory. Each organization has differing guidelines as each case needs to be evaluated. Based on the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network by the Ad Hoc Disease Transmission Advisory Committee, evidence is growing that supports accepting specific organs from both deceased and living donors that either have had or currently have COVID after meeting certain criteria.4
Organ donation is an incredible act of generosity and love for humanity. While we should continue strive to make a positive impact during life, death should not be something that we consider as “the end”. Instead, especially for individuals who are on transplant waiting lists, we can appreciate how to make life-long impacts for others, just like our hero.
The following is a small sampling of many organ transplant organizations for further reading concerning organ donation to see if this might be the right path for you or others.
- United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS): https://unos.org
- National Kidney Foundation: https://www.kidney.org
- Donate Life America: https://www.donatelife.net
- American Society of Transplantation: https://www.myast.org
- American Kidney Fund: https://www.kidneyfund.org
- International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation: https://ishlt.org
- National Marrow Donor Program: https://bethematch.org
- American Liver Foundation: https://liverfoundation.org
1) Lahey T. Rituals of honor in hospital hallways. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/02/well/live/rituals-of-honor-in-hospital-hallways.html. Published April 2, 2019. Accessed August 30, 2021.
2) Facts and myths about transplant. American Transplant Foundation. https://www.americantransplantfoundation.org/about-transplant/facts-and-myths/. Published August 20, 2021. Accessed August 29, 2021.
3) Organ procurement AND Transplantation NETWORK. OPTN. https://optn.transplant.hrsa.gov/data/view-data-reports/national-data/#. Accessed August 29, 2021.
4) Summary of Current Evidence and Information – Donor SARS-CoV-2 Testing & Organ Recovery from Donors with a History of COVID-19. https://optn.transplant.hrsa.gov/governance/about-the-optn/.