The need for organ donations during the COVID-19 crisis

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Before his second birthday, young Barron Shoemaker needed a heart.

"They finally had to fly him to Houston where we later found out he would need a heart transplant," said his mother, Ashley Shoemaker.

Doctors at Texas Children's Hospital said it was likely a virus that led to the inflammation in Barron's heart muscle, which caused it to enlarge over time. So, he was put on a waiting list.

"Barron basically lived there, attached to an artificial heart and a machine," Ashley said.

Waiting for a new heart and not knowing when one would be available was one of the family's biggest fears. While Barron was staying at the hospital, waiting, those fears grew more.

"When COVID-19 happened, I had a feeling it was going to be a really long time," Ashley said.

The vice president of external operations at LifeGift Lauren Quinn said the COVID-19 crisis has made an impact here in the U.S.

"Our potential for donation has dropped off a bit" Quinn said. "When you look at our data from March to April, the number of people who die in a manner that allows for the opportunity for donation did dip somewhat."

According to LifeGift, more than 10,000 people in Texas are waiting for a life-saving transplant. Last year, 1,275 lives were saved in their regions, but when the pandemic hit, the affects were felt immediately.

"The number of donors really trailed off for about 10 days," said Memorial Hermann chief of abdominal transplants Dr. Steve Bynon. "And you could tell very clearly people were not out driving."

Fatalities on the highways make up for a large portion of donor organs, but with the recent stay-at-home orders, there has been less traffic on the roads.

According to TXDOT, there were a total of 718 fatalities in the state of Texas this year from January to mid-March. From mid-March to mid-May, that number dropped to 422. In Harris County, there were 48 fatalities during that time as well.

Besides fewer donors, there were other obstacles.

"I think initially the biggest challenge was getting testing," said Chris Curran with LifeGift. "So, testing our donors for COVID-19 was a big hurdle at first."

Bynon said each donor is tested for COVID-19 along with other potential ailments. If the test comes back positive, unfortunately, the organs are not viable.

"So, the ability to do transplants at some places actually went to zero for a short period of time," Bynon said.

As the state slowly begins to reopen, activities will increase. LifeGift has already seen more organ donations. So far, they have facilitated 21 donors and transplanted 75 organs.

LifeGift said if you're not already signed up to be a donor, it's something worth considering. You can start the process by clicking here.

As for young Barron, he received a new heart in March. It's a gift of life that the family is grateful for.

"I pray for that family every night, you know, before Barron got his heart. And I pray for them every day. I would love to tell them thanks. It's a blessing and a miracle. We're so thankful," said Ashley.
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