The Organ Trail: How demand for transplants in other states coul - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

The Organ Trail: How demand for transplants in other states could affect Iowa

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CEDAR FALLS (KWWL) -

As Iowans, we are known for our generosity. Perhaps no example is greater than the gift of life.

Seven out of 10 adults in our state have signed up to be an organ donor. That's impressive, but Iowa could be asked to share the wealth.

It's an idea that doesn't sit well with some who are worried that no good deed, or in this case donation, goes unpunished.

"These were some of the wonderful trips we were able to enjoy over the years," said Sharon Puls-Curttright as she looked at pictures of her and her late husband, Curtiss 'Budd' Curttright.

"Different people have said, 'I will never forget his laugh' because he had a hearty laugh," said Puls-Curttright.

Budd Curttright, a longtime public works director in Cedar Falls, passed away in March from Alzheimer's. Sharon was an around-the-clock caregiver for him for several years.

Within a week or two of Budd's death: "I had called my sister and said, 'I think I need to go into the emergency room, I think I'm having a breakdown of some kind," said Puls-Curttright.

What was breaking down was her liver.

"It came to the point where they gave me four hours," said Puls-Curttright.

A donor was identified quickly and she got a new liver in time. "The unfortunate part is that someone lost a life so that you can have a life," said Puls-Curttright.

"Liver disease can affect you if you're young or old," said Dr. Alan Reed, the University of Iowa Organ Transplant Center director.

"If we weren't here, it would be a disaster," said Dr. Reed.

The center is home to about 30 liver transplants a year. In Iowa right now, there are 45 people on a waiting list, hoping to come there soon for a transplant.

Not only is their future in a holding pattern, so is the landscape of liver donations nationwide.

"Why should the unfortunate consequence of geography dictate whether you live or die? That's what they say," said Dr. Reed.

He is talking about a proposal to change how livers are divvied up.

Here's the idea: The United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, runs the system that oversees organ distribution. UNOS is concerned because there are parts of the country where demand for livers is higher, but the rate of donation is lower than what we see in Iowa.

"We run in the top 10, maybe seven or eight in the percentage of registered donors," said Tony Hakes, the public outreach manager for the Iowa Donor Network.

An idea being floated would reshape the boundaries, similar to redistricting that happens in politics. Currently, UNOS divides the country into 11 geographic regions. A proposal would reduce that to four or eight.

That would open the door for more livers from the Midwest to be sent to the east or west coast.

"If we ship organs out of our area and we can't serve our populations, it would threaten our existence," said Dr. Reed, who continued, "We're the only multi-organ transplant program in the state of Iowa. In Philadelphia, there are eight."

The "liver redistribution" concept raised enough concerns that more than 50 U.S. House members sent a letter to federal health officials about it and 500 people, including Dr. Reed, took part in a public hearing this fall in Chicago.

"You're solving one problem and creating two. You're ratcheting up the cost, which in today's health care environment is just unacceptable and you're utilizing a scarce resource more poorly," said Dr. Reed.

One issue is shipping. Not only does it cost more to fly organs around the country, but the organ itself is less valuable the longer it sits outside the body. That's something on the mind of Sharon Puls-Curttright these days because she needs another liver transplant.

"I'll wake up in the middle of the night and be on fire because I'm itching so bad," said Puls-Curttright.

She doesn't believe she's in danger of acute liver failure again, but knows her quality of life won't be the same without a second transplant.

So now, on a waiting list, she waits for that phone call. "I've learned to be so thankful that I'm still here," said Puls-Curttright.

"Their answer is to shift organs. Our answer is to try and improve organ donations," said Dr. Reed.

One way to do that is right at the DMV. You can sign up to be a donor when you get your license.

Here's an example of Iowa's success in getting the message out.

Iowa has about 1.8 million people signed up on the registry or about what Tennessee has, but Tennessee is twice the size of the Hawkeye state.

"If we had enough organs to go around, this wouldn't be as big a problem," said Dr. Reed.

"Donation costs nothing. It costs the family nothing and that person can go on and save four to five different people's lives. It's an unbelievable gift," said Hakes.

That's something Sharon Puls-Curttright knows well as she pictures her life moving forward. "You talk about getting a second chance at life and here's the reason you keep going because they are priceless. Priceless little people," she said as she looked at pictures of her grandchildren.

Of those on a waiting list in Iowa, 26 received a liver transplant. Five died waiting for one last year.

UNOS tells KWWL no decision has been made about the organ redistribution idea. It's considering feedback before it goes to the board of directors for a vote.

That board has 43 members, about one-third from the east coast.

One board member is from Iowa.

Click here if you'd like to learn more about organ donation through the Iowa Donor Network.

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