By EMMA OGUTU
Capital News Service
LANSING — Four months after Spectrum Health System’s heart transplant center in Grand Rapids opened, a patient received a new heart. Less than a year later the institute has performed eight transplants and expects to raise that number to 12 by the end of this summer.
If that plan works, three people will be left on the center’s waiting list — if more people aren’t added, an unlikely prospect given that approximately 100,000 people need life-saving organ transplants in the U.S.
“We need millions of people in Michigan to register as organ donors,” said Bruce Rossnam, media relations manager at the health facility.
Although organ donations and transfers are coordinated nationally, they are limited by time and proximity.
“The more donors we have in our region, the more organs are potentially going to be available for people in Michigan,” he said. “Physically transferring an organ from California to Michigan is just not the practical way.”
The Spectrum Health donor was among more than 2 million people listed on the state’s registry.
“He didn’t just give his heart. Three others received his liver and each of his kidneys,” said Betsy Miner-Swartz, a communication specialist from Gift of Life Michigan, an Ann Arbor-based organization that coordinates organ and tissue recovery.
The number of registered donors in the state grew by 32 percent last year after a campaign drive, which Miner-Swartz says was “the most successful effort” in Michigan’s history.
“Unfortunately that didn’t make that much of a difference,” she said. “Latest studies show that we ranked 46 nationally in the percentage of adults registered as donors.”
Before then, Michigan ranked 42 among the states with an average adult registration rate of 27 percent. The national average is 41 percent, but Gift of Life hopes participation will improve, according to Miner-Swartz.
Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has announced an initiative that directs her department’s employees to ask customers to join the donor registry.
“Before, the onus was on the customer to ask if they could register,” said Tim Makinen, the corporate communications director at Gift of Life. “But some customers weren’t aware that they had that option and many times they are busy trying to do a bunch of things at the office. It’s easy to forget.”
Other changes range from putting donation information on customer forms to a new version of the driver’s license without the sign-up portion on the back. That was done to eliminate confusion because many people thought that they were automatically registered once they filled in their information at the back of their licenses, which is not the case, Miner-Swartz said.
“This new policy and Secretary Johnson’s efforts will save more lives,” said Richard Pietroski, chief executive officer of Gift of Life Michigan.
As part of its National Donation Life month donor drive, Gift of Life is also urging people to sign up through its website, giftoflifemichigan.org, by calling 800-482-4881 or visiting any Secretary of State office.
About 3,000 people in Michigan are on the waiting list for life-sustaining organs. Eighty percent of them need kidneys.
African-Americans make up 45 percent of those who need kidneys because of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.
In 2010, 76 percent of the state’s 289 donors were white, 21 percent African-American, 1 percent Asian and 1.4 percent Hispanic.
Gift of Life has established the Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program to ramp up minority participation.
“Organs are certainly color-blind as long as the blood types and tissue types match. Organs can be transplanted across people of different colors,” Makinen said. “But we just want people from all walks of life to get involved in this altruistic call.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.