Doctor says proposal to ship organs out of Washington is "redistributing death"

By: Dave Wagner

Updated:

There are 250 people waiting for a new liver in the Seattle area, but doctors say more of them will die under a new plan by the nation’s organ sharing network.  While Washingtonians are generous when it comes to giving the gift of life, a plan from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), calls for sending 40-percent of our donated livers to places like California, leaving more patients in our state to die.

Kailyn McIrvin of Shelton understands the race against the clock.  The 24-year-old woman was born with a genetic condition that required a liver transplant. 

“I just kept getting sicker and sicker.  I didn’t live a normal life.” said McIrvin.  Last year, she was put on the waiting list for a new liver. “It was just a waiting game. You had to get sicker in order to get the liver,” said McIrvin.

There are hundreds of people in our region who are waiting for donor livers.  If the non-profit agency UNOS approves a plan, more patients will die in the Pacific Northwest before an organ arrives.

“There will be more patients dying waiting, no question about. We will be losing almost 40% of the livers in this region, almost 40%,” said Dr. Jorge Reyes who is a UW Medicine surgeon and chief of transplant surgery.

Donor livers are in short supply in America and the waiting lists are especially long in California, New York and Boston.  “In some places it takes longer to get a liver and the likelihood of dying on the waiting list is higher,” said UNOS President Dr. Stuart Sweet.

UNOS believes where you live should not determine your ability to get a life-saving liver.  The organization is considering taking livers from higher-donor states, like Washington, and sending them to patients in California.

“When they start taking livers from here, there will be less patients dying elsewhere but more patients dying here. It's basically just redistributing death, not just redistributing livers. The same number of patients are dying. It's not saving more patients,” said Dr. Reyes.

In October, during a UNOS hearing in Seattle, not a single person in our region voted for the plan, while 62 people voted against with three abstentions.

“There are six VA liver transplant programs and five of the six programs stand to be disadvantaged from the redistricting policy, said Dr. Susan Orloff who is chief of organ transplantation at Oregon Health and Science University.

Among those attending the hearing was liver transplant recipient Colin Rines.  “We're patients.  This impacts us.  Some of us are gonna die.  If this policy goes through, some of us are gonna die. That's the real life impact of this,” said Rines.

There are also concerns that if a team comes from California to harvest a liver of someone in Washington, they will only take the best “blue ribbon” organs.  Dr. Reyes also believes the families of those brain dead patients will have to wait even longer to say goodbye.

Unbeknownst to transplant centers here in Washington, centers in California, New York and Boston have been lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill to support liver redistribution. 

“A lot of politics, a lot of subjectivity. Transplant is a big deal. It's a big moneymaker for centers. So, the more transplants a center does, the more money a center is going to make,” said Dr. Reyes.

The president of UNOS said the goal of the plan is to more equally distribute organs in this country. 

“For every physician in Seattle who is very concerned about the potential changes, there are physicians in California, New York and Boston who are very concerned about their ability to provide organs for their patients," said Dr. Stuart Sweet.

The chief of transplant surgery at the University of Washington believes some transplant centers are working the system, by placing patients on the transplant list earlier, making them appear sicker than patients in the Pacific Northwest.  “It's like a game almost.

You just list everybody almost indiscriminately,” said Dr. Jorge Reyes.

In Washington’s region, there are 404 patients on the waiting list for a liver.  In the region that includes California, there are 3,242.

“There's one center in California that has almost 900 patients listed, one center and another center that has almost 500 patients listed. I guarantee you that the listing practices are very loose, very loose. Yes they're sick, but they're not really sicker than our patients,” said Dr. Reyes.

Those in the transplant field in the Pacific Northwest believe that California, New York and Boston need to ramp up efforts to improve organ donation, not raid the precious supply of livers in places like the Pacific Northwest.

Kailyn McIrvin’s story has a happy ending.  Last year, she received a life-saving liver transplant from a living donor who is a family friend.

“I’m incredibly thankful.  I’m incredibly blessed and I think of that each and every day,” said McIrvin.

Since her transplant, McIrvin has only been in the hospital once.  For others, the wait continues.

“People are literally laying in hospital beds dying, saying you have a week to live and you’re, you’re on the wait list and you just have to wait. There’s nothing you can do but wait,” said McIrvin.

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