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Keeping hope alive for patients waiting for organ transplants

Number joining organ donor registry falls during pandemic

DETROIT – Right now there are 2,768 people in Michigan waiting for an organ transplant.

Rachel Postma, a 22-year-old college student in Grand Rapids, is one of them.

"I've been on the list now waiting for my second heart since August of 2017. So I've been waiting for almost three years now," said Postma.

UPDATE -- April 30, 2020: Michigan coronavirus cases up to 41,379; Death toll now at 3,789

Postma was just a baby when viral cardiomyopathy damaged her heart. When she was twelve, she was put on the transplant list.

"I was only on the list for about two weeks before I got a call," said Postma. "And then it was the perfect match."

Ten years later, Postma is waiting for a second lifesaving gift. She knows the coronavirus pandemic makes that gift less likely.

"Hearing that there aren't transplants going on, it almost like takes away a sense of hope," said Postma.

Lifesaving transplants from deceased donors are still allowed, but there are fewer potential donors, says Dorrie Dils, CEO at Gift of Life Michigan.

"Unfortunately, Michigan has been heavily hit by the coronavirus, and we've seen some very significant decreases in both organ and tissue donation, and actually, that's not unique here in Michigan, we've seen it across the country," said Dils. "We're still getting lots of referrals and lots of calls regarding deaths at hospitals, but many of those are positive for COVID-19, and we are unable to recover organs or tissues from those individuals."

The current situation is making the shortage of organs even worse.

"Prior to the pandemic, 22 people die every day in the United States waiting for an organ transplant," said Dils. "And I imagine that number has gone up."

There is a ripple effect too. Gift of Life Michigan says 95 percent of those who join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry do so through the Secretary of State's office when they get a new license or renew one. April is Donate Life Month, when volunteers would have been visiting offices to encourage people to sign up. With Secretary of State's offices now closed, the number of people joining the registry has fallen dramatically.

In January, 28,000 people added their name to the registry. In March, there were 18,000 names added. April is expected to be even lower.

Meanwhile the list of those waiting keeps growing.

"The list can't wait," said Dils. "And the truth is, regardless of a pandemic and a national crisis going on, people are still dying waiting for organ transplants, and we need to continue to do everything we can to save those lives."

Postma hopes everyone will help spread the word about the falling numbers.

"I would encourage people to sign up online," said Postma "If anything, we should be ramping up the amount of people signing up for organ donation right now."

As for what it would mean to patients like her --

"It would bring me a sense of hope, a sense of peace. And just like make me feel hopeful about the future," said Postma.

Click here to learn more about organ donation and join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.

What one donor can do
What one donor can do (WDIV)
Tissue donation can improve up to 75 lives
Tissue donation can improve up to 75 lives (WDIV)