June 9, 2020 at 11:42 am EDT | by Andrew Shunk, MSBS-HDS, NRP, CPTC
Organ Donation in the Time of COVID-19
Mike Lynch and Andrew Shunk (right) at Blue Ridge Mountain.

On a recent day off, my boyfriend Mike Lynch, our dog Bellatrix and I hit the trails on Blue Ridge Mountain for a socially distanced hike. It was an escape of sorts as we both find ourselves on the frontlines of this COVID-19 pandemic. Mike as a Critical Care Nurse, and me as an Advanced Practice Coordinator, facilitating the organ donation process so people in dire need of a transplant may live. 

Each day, we enter Critical Care Units and hospital rooms despite our fear that we too could contract COVID-19. It is risky, but healthcare workers know the only way to turn this pandemic around is to show up and do our part, even though that means putting ourselves in harm’s way. It’s a high-stress environment in hospitals these days, but if you look closely enough, you’ll see nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and support staff still smiling under their masks while they do what they do best–-caring for patients. 

I am on the clinical team at Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC), the Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) in metro DC. WRTC is responsible for recovering and allocating organs and tissues used in lifesaving transplant surgeries. Unfortunately, the pandemic has led to a significant decline in organ and tissue donors, however, the good news is donations and transplantations are still happening when it is safe to do so. 

The pandemic has forced us to temporarily adjust the donation process. Changes include supplying our own PPE when we are able to not diminish hospital supplies, processing donor medical evaluations offsite to limit foot traffic in hospitals and providing local transplant surgeons to recover organs for transplant, rather than surgeons outside the region traveling to DC. In addition, we are working with hospitals to test all potential donors for COVID-19. 

In May 2020, WRTC recovered and allocated organs and tissues from 32 benevolent donors, and while that number is down, we are hopeful as COVID-19 hospitalizations decrease, we will see an uptick in the number of donors. While we cannot currently recover organs and tissues from donors who have active COVID-19 infections, we are evaluating the potential to accept organs from COVID-19 survivors, so long as they tested negative for COVID-19 at the time of their death. Our medical directors conduct comprehensive evaluations on all potential donors and determine medical suitability on a case-by-case basis.

Everyone can register to be a donor, and I urge people to visit BeADonor.org right now and register. The nearly 112,000 people with end-stage organ failure are counting on you. They desperately wait each day for the call that a lifesaving organ is available for them. There is no medicine or a magic pill they can take to live. A transplant is the only cure, and that is why our mission must always continue. 

To learn more about organ, eye and tissue donation, visit BeADonor.org. Written by Andrew Shunk, MSBS-HDS, NRP, CPTC, Washington Regional Transplant Community.

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