Organ donation in Germany


Health | 21.12.2008

“A New Chance At Life”: A Look at Organ Donation in Germany

Organ failure often means death, especially when there is a shortage of organ donors. In Germany, over 4,000 transplants occur each year, but there are still too few organ donors when compared to those in need.

To help even the balance — and increase the chances of survival for many — the European Commission recently set forth two new proposals for making organ donations and transplants easier.

One of the most important aspects laid out in these proposals is the introduction of transplantation coordinators for all large hospitals. It’s a move that’s been quite successful in several EU countries, including Spain. And it’s one that Germany will soon make, too.

“There are far too few organ donors in Germany,” said Wolfgang Arns, Head of the Transplantation Station at Cologne’s Merheim Hospital.

“Patients sometimes have to wait five, six, seven years and while they wait, they become sicker and sicker. Unfortunately that means watching as a patient’s health slips away, making them no longer ideal recipients of a transplant. They simply die while they wait.”

Like winning the lottery

In Germany, three people die every day while waiting on the transplant list. With only 4,000 organs donated each year, making it off the waiting list can seem like winning the lottery.

Two surgeons completing a transplant operationBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: A donor shortage can make transplant recipients feel like lottery winners

“When the call comes, you’re just beside yourself,” said Hermann Meters, a recent recipient of a new kidney. “You’re so happy at that moment, you become absolutely scatterbrained. ”

Benjamin Hoffmann, who got a second chance at life recently when he received a new kidney, agreed. For seven-and-a-half years, the 27-year-old had to endure dialysis while waiting for an organ donor to come along.

“Three times a week, for five hours at a time, I’d be stuck with a needle and have to wait as my blood was filtered,” said Hoffmann.

Kidneys, which cleanse the body of impurities while also making sure that the body has enough salt and fluid, are the most frequently transplanted organs in Germany.

Though Hoffmann is quite happy to have finally made if off the waiting list, he prefers not think about where his new organ came from.

“It’s better not to think that it may have come from someone who died,” he said. “It’s better to simply enjoy it, this beginning of a new life.”

A gloved hand holding a human heart while preparing it for transplantBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Some recipients feel guilty about having taken another’s heart

Though one person who is listed as an organ donor can save up to seven lives when he or she dies, kidney donations can likewise come from living donors. For now, Hoffmann only knows that his organ donor was about 50 years old.

Ensuring neutrality

Eurotransplant, an organization based in Leiden, The Netherlands, arranged the transplant with Hoffmann’s physician, Arns. They won’t reveal more details, as some recipients have problems coming to terms with the idea that they are living with an organ donated by someone who may be dead.

“Working with a distribution center like Eurotransplant ensures that decisions remain neutral,” said Arns. “They have a compulsory schedule that they use to seek out potential recipients.”

Following set criteria — blood type, urgency of need, the patient’s time spent on the waiting list, among other things — the center chooses who will receive the next transplant. The organ is then shipped to one of the seven European countries which subscribe to the center’s services and is delivered to the appropriate hospital.

The bad news: side effects

Once selected, the patients have to undergo a physical to ensure they’re healthy enough to handle the new transplant. And afterwards, they need to maintain a strict medication regiment for the rest of their lives.

“These medications, of course, have side effects,” said Arns. “One of which is infection. Another is that it can cause damage in other organs. And the third is, of course, the problem that after taking the medication for a while, the body’s natural ‘health police’ get triggered and often this creates tumors after a transplant.”

The “health police” is the body’s natural immune system. But as artificial kidneys aren’t yet available, these side effects are chances that patients have to be willing to take.

And Arns, who has done transplants for over thirty years, is happy about his success.

“It’s quite a wonderful feeling,” he said. “It’s a real sense of pleasure – most of all when a former patient comes back and you just see how good they feel. It’s written all over their face.”

Jana Pareigis (cat)

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