Chicago Seeking To Become Organ Transplant Hub

CHICAGO (CBS) — This year, more than 4,700 men, women and children living in Illinois are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants. However, 300 will die waiting.

A group of Chicago area hospitals, doctors, and politicians have teamed up to work toward the goal of turning Chicago into the organ transplant hub of the nation.

The city of Chicago, the Illinois Secretary of State and the Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network sponsored Tuesday morning the first ever Chicago Organ Summit at the Chicago Cultural Center.

The summit was organized in response to President Barack Obama’s call for new actions to increase access to organ transplants and reduce wait times for a donation. The summit has brought together transplant programs, Chicago area hospitals, and local elected officials to improve organ donations and transplants.

“This came about after President Obama put together an organ summit for the country and invited 25 organizations to talk about what they could do to increase transplantation. We thought that was cool so we went to the mayor and said we should do this in Chicago,” said Kevin Cmunt, President, CEO, Gift of Hope. “Today is a chance for us to bring the transplant community and our major hospital systems together to make commitments to improve organ donation in the city.”

The good news: Organ transplants are up by 50 percent in recent years. Cmunt said there’s room for improvement and hopes Chicago will become the transplant hub of the country by 2020.

“It’s a really cool thing to do, and why wouldn’t you?” said Laurie Lee, whose father received a life-saving liver transplant six years ago.

Six months ago, Lee decided to pay it forward, and donated her own kidney as part of a transplant chain.

“My family felt very blessed,” Lee said. “It’s humbling to have taken from the system that only exists because people decide to give. It got to the point where I felt like we took from a system that is all about giving and I figured I could leave it as it is, celebrate my dad’s life or pass the ball forward so that’s what I did.”

Lee said if there were more donors, there wouldn’t be an organ shortage.

“It’s neat to know that I have a kidney family. I know that my effort has started this thing that’s connecting all these people are right now. We’re born with two kidneys and we only need one and most people have the capacity to do this,” Lee said. “If more of us did that, there wouldn’t be a shortage. It really isn’t an organ shortage, it’s just a lack of understanding. It’s a really cool thing to do.”

Chicago has some of the best hospitals equipped to carry out transplants, but it takes teamwork to increase the number of surgeries.

Kelvin Martin, also known as DJ Flash, waited 2 ½ years to find a match when he needed a new heart after suffering congestive heart failure in 2014. He’s met his donor’s mother.

“It makes me feel so good when she sees me out DJing and actually moving around to know that her son, J.R., is living inside me, and we’re doing good,” he said.

Over the weekend, Darvece Munson received a kidney from her 11-year-old cousin, Takiya Holmes, who died three days after a stray bullet struck her in the head while she was sitting in a van with her family in the Parkway Gardens neighborhood.

Thanks to her mother’s decision to donate her organs, Takiya helped save eight lives, including her cousin’s.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White also has proposed legislation allowing youths ages 16 and 17 to register as organ donors when they get their driver’s license. Currently, someone must be 18 to register in Illinois. Under White’s proposal, parents and legal guardians would have the right to overturn their child’s decision about registering as a donor until the child is 18.

“This bill will allow 16, 17-year olds to register. Their families will still have the right to make that final decision, but at least we’ll know what the young person’s wishes were,” said Cmunt.

Gift of Life CEO Kevin Cmunt said it’s all about rewriting the end to a tragedy, and he believes Chicago can do a better job to save more lives.

“We have the perfect combination. We have an incredibly generous population who’s willing to donate organs, we have great transplant programs, and we are geographically in the right place. We are in the middle of country,” he said.

By the year 2020, Gift of Hope hopes to increase organs recovered for transplant by 25 percent. The summit is designed as a call to action to reduce the wait time for these patients.

“I think it’s about awareness in the community, it’s about partnership with the hospitals, it’s about working hard to find the homes for all of those organs so that we can make more people eligible for donations,” he said.

Organizers of Tuesday’s summit said the goal is to complete 2,000 organ transplants a year in Chicago.

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