Organ donation: 'For some families, it's not an easy decision'

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Andrea Anderson
Thursday, July 10, 2014

JANESVILLE—The organs of Eric Gutierrez, the 11-year-old Sharon boy shot in the head Wednesday, will be donated, according to the mother's Facebook page.

Eric's organs could save the lives of eight of the 2,500 people waiting for a transplant in Wisconsin. Nationally, more than 120,000 people wait on a donor registry.

“This is really (the recipient's) second chance at life, and they're really the lucky ones,” Jill Ellefson, service line director for UW Health Transplant said. “It's a huge need, and it's a wonderful gift to be an organ donor.”

Every 11 minutes, another person is added to organ transplant waiting list, and each day 19 people die waiting for an organ, said Mike Anderson, executive director of UW-Madison Organ and Tissue Donation.

A single donor can save up to eight people if all the solid organs--heart, both kidneys, liver, both lungs, pancreas and some small intestine--are donated. 


Talking about organ donation with families of a dying loved one is difficult and needs to be done delicately and respectfully.

"For some families, it's not an easy decision," Anderson said.

Each hospital has different protocols for speaking with families about potential organ donation.

University Hospital in Madison takes a team approach. Nurses, doctors, social workers and chaplains meet with the family and provide oral and written information on the options.

This can be done before or after someone dies.

A person such as Eric can remain brain dead and his organs kept viable with a ventilator until organ recipients are found.

The time limit begins when the organs are surgically recovered, placed into a cooler and transported via plane or ground before being transplanted. Time between recovery and transplant can range from four hours to 24 hours, depending on the organ, he said.


Donors and recipients are matched through blood type, tissue matching and demographic information such as age, sex and height. The information is compiled on registries.

Recipients are chosen based on medical urgency, time spent on the waiting list and their distance from the donor.

All donors and organs go through testing to make sure diseases or other health risks are not passed from one person to the next.

Wisconsin has one of the highest organ donation rates in the nation and, therefore, one of the nation's shortest waiting times, Ellefson said.

A person waiting for a kidney in Wisconsin will await for a transplant for about 16 months. Regionally, the wait time is 50 months. Nationally, it's about 70 months.


Death can be determined by cardiac death or brain death.

Cardiac death is when the heart stops functioning and blood no longer circulates through the body.

Brain death is when the brain stops functioning and blood and oxygen are no longer flowing to the brain. This often happens after a severe injury. The heart can beat on its own because it operates independently from the brain. There is no way to recover from a brain death.

Brain death is when someone is legally dead, Anderson said.

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