MVP: Most Valuable Patient

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Pittsburgh Steelers may have a Super Bowl trophy but the Carolina Panthers’ team owner was the biggest winner in football over the weekend. After being placed on the transplant waiting list two months ago, Jerry Richardson received a new heart on Sunday.

Richardson’s opportunity began with the pain and sorrow of another family whose loved one died. In hospitals around the country, nurses and doctors have become skilled at understanding that one family’s loss is another’s gain. They serve two masters. The first is the brain dead patient whose body needs to be kept “alive” maintaining a normal environment with normal blood pressure and circulation to provide oxygen and nutrients to the body’s organs. They also serve the family providing comfort and support while at the same time teaching relatives and friends about brain death and the potential for organ transplant.

If the family agrees, and organs become available, the United Network for Organ Sharing and the local organ procurement organization spring into action. As a transplant team is called to harvest lungs, kidneys, heart, pancreas, intestine and more, the search begins for appropriate recipients. Initial matching is done for blood type, body size and weight. Other factors including severity of illness and geographic location are then considered. Local, regional and national lists are checked to find the best tissue match. All patients are given a fair chance at receiving a transplanted organ, regardless of sex, race, religion and financial status. Time is of the essence. Once the heart is harvested from the donor, there is only a six hour time window to get it into the new chest. Other organs may last 24 hours or more.

Patients hoping to get a transplanted organ get to a transplant center by doctor referral. There, they are screened for the severity of their illness and the ability to have a potentially successful operation. Mental health and social support systems are also assessed. Being a transplant recipient is a lifetime commitment to protect the new organ. Once accepted as a potential recipient, the patient’s name goes into the national databank and the wait begins.

The odds aren’t in favor of people needing organs. The UNOS website,, maintains an up to the minute list of how many people are waiting for an organ transplant in the country. As I write this, 100,699 need one or more organs and of those, 2,761 are waiting for a heart. The list changes hour to hour. New patients are added while others are taken off because they became too ill to tolerate an operation or they died waiting. While the number of people needing a transplant grows, donors are always in short supply. In the first 9 months of 2008, 23,000 organ were donated by over 11,000 people; just a fraction of the nation’s need.

As the city of Pittsburgh celebrates its new champions, Jerry Richardson recovers with a new heart beating in his chest and he knows that Sunday’s star wasn’t playing in the Super Bowl. The MVP was an organ donor.

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