IN THE EARLY YEARS OF TRANSPLANTATION, there was no nationwide network to assist in the procurement of organs. Physicians had to pick up the phone and call other hospitals to ask if they had any patients on the edge of death who might be potential donors.
“It was nerve-racking,” recalls pediatric gastroenterologist Marvin Ament, M.D. "Children were admitted to the Intensive Care Unit who were in liver failure, and our struggle was to keep them alive until we could find a donor, and there was no coordinated system at that time for finding donors.”
While Lily Mandel and her family waited for a new liver in the early summer of 1984, halfway across the country Janet and Milton Bemis were enduring their own heartbreak – their 2 ½-year-old son, Matthew, drowned during a family outing to a local lake.
“It was like a nightmare,” Janet Bemis recalls. “But it was real, and there was nothing we could do about it. So we decided to try to make something positive out of this horrible tragedy.” Janet was cradling her son in the ICU, knowing he would not survive, when she turned to her husband and quietly said, “I wonder if we could …” “Donate?” Milton asked, completing her thought.
Making their rounds in search of a possible donor, Lily’s doctors in Los Angeles learned of the young drowning victim 1,500 miles away in Nebraska. Calls were made to Children’s Hospital in Omaha, where Matthew was on life support, and soon a UCLA team was flying there to harvest his liver.
Before his son was taken off life support, Milton Bemis leaned close to whisper: “Matthew … somebody needs you. You’re a winner, Matt. You’re going to help somebody.”
The transplant was successful, and today, Lily Mandel Allen counts August 8, 1984 – the date of her lifesaving operation – as her second birthday. And the Bemises, she says, have become like her second parents.
ORGAN PROCUREMENT HAS CHANGED A LOT SINCE THEN. Though the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 called for an Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) to be operated by a private, non-profit organization under federal contract, it wasn’t until late 1986 that the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) was awarded the initial contract, which it continues to administer.
Doctors no longer have to make uncomfortable phone calls in search of potential donor organs. The OPTN helps to ensure the success and efficiency of the U.S. organtransplant system by facilitating the organ-matching and -placement process through a nationwide computer system and a fully staffed Organ Center that operates 24 hours a day. The OPTN also develops consensus-based policies and procedures for organ recovery, allocation and transportation and collects and manages scientific data about organ donation and transplantation. Locally, OneLegacy is the federally designated transplant-donor network. In addition to bridging the lives of organ and tissue donors with recipients, OneLegacy also provides support to donor families and works to encourage the region’s diverse communities to become more involved in organ donation.
More than 221,200 people have given their hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys and other organs since 1988, when UNOS began publishing its data, resulting in more than 452,000 organ transplants nationwide. UCLA, which is among the largest transplant centers in the United States, has performed upwards of 11,450 transplants. Currently, there are more than 100,000 people in the U.S. on organ-transplant waiting lists.
Being a part of that community of organ donors has helped Janet and Milton Bemis to heal from Matthew’s death. “Miracles happen through organ donation and transplant,” Milton says, to which his wife adds, “Lily is such a wonderful young woman. I look at her, and I can picture what Matthew would have grown up to be like.”
To learn more about UNOS, go to www.unos.org.
For information about organ donation in Southern California, visit www.onelegacy.org.