You’re never too old to save a life

Dr. Nabil Dagher, director of the abdominal transplant program at NYU Langone’s Transplant Institute. Photo courtesy of NYU Langone
By Carol Ann Rinzler

You’re never too old to save a life. No, you don’t have to throw yourself in front of a speeding bullet or New York City driver. Just signing up as an organ donor will do the trick.

Each of us is a veritable medicine chest stocked with 8 lifesaving organs (heart, 2 lungs, a dividable liver, pancreas, 2 kidneys, and intestines), plus a plethora of healing tissues ranging from corneas to tendons, heart valves, skin and bones.

In the roughly ten minutes it might take you to skim through all the headlines in this paper, another name will be added to the more than 115,000 already on the waiting list for a transplant of one of these lifesaving bits and pieces. It may be a very long wait. While 95 percent of Americans endorse donating organs, many of us shy away from putting our names and bodies on the dotted line.

The Mayo Clinic says excuses include myths like the idea that if you agree to donate your organs the hospital staff won’t work hard to save your life or maybe you won’t really be dead when they sign the death certificate or donating will make it impossible for your survivors to have an open-casket funeral or you’re not in the best of health so nobody would want your organs or you’re just too old.

“It’s a misconception that if you’re a donor doctors will not try to save your life,” says Dr. Anthony Watkins, abdominal transplant surgeon at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “The reality is that everyone’s focus is always on saving a life, donor and recipient.”

And you will definitely be brain-dead, although machines may keep your heart and lungs working so that your organs remain viable. As for age, yes, an older person might have a condition such as active cancer or a systemic infection that rules out donation but just being older is not a disqualifier. In fact, says Dr. Nabil Dagher, director of the abdominal transplant program at NYU Langone’s Transplant Institute, “The miracle of transplantation allows our organs to out-live us for many years, even when donated at an older age. For example, while the general age cut off for a living liver donor — a person who gives a part of his liver while he is still alive — is 60, living donors in their 80s have donated kidneys successfully.”

Some day that may not be necessary. Researchers have already 3D-printed human ears by coating molded forms with living cells on an ear-shape mold and have created and transplanted vaginas grown with a patient’s cells on a vagina-shape scaffold. Even more exciting is rheir cultivation of very small, millimeter-size human structures known as “organoids” used to study how our body parts work. The current list includes a “mini brain” similar in size to that of a 5-week old human fetus (Ohio State University), a beating “mini heart” with muscles and connective tissue grown from stem cells (University of California Berkeley), “mini lungs” (University of Michigan Medical School) and a clutch of “mini stomachs” (Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center).

How long until science gives us working human-size replacement parts? The best answer is, “Eventually.” For the moment, donation rules. That’s why you should register your intent to donate, designate your choice on your driver’s license, and tell your family and friends who, in some cases, must give permission for the procedure.

Because, Dagher concludes, “Donating organs is the ultimate gift one human can give to another.”

At any age.