While the cures for many patients facing challenging diseases and conditions rest on research and health care, for those in need of transplants life depends on receiving something even more concrete and rare — a donor organ.

“Living donation is essential for many reasons,” says George Mazariegos, M.D., Chief, Pediatric Transplantation of the Hillman Center for Pediatric Transplantation at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. “On average, up to 30 children a year will die while waiting for an organ prior to transplant. Living donation reduces the wait time and increases the accessibility of transplant to patients who might get sicker waiting for a deceased donor, and living donation allows patients to receive a new liver or kidney while they are still relatively healthy.”

At Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, the three-year patient and graft survival rates for living-donor liver transplants are 100 percent. Children’s Hospital has performed more pediatric liver transplants than any other center in the United States.

Taking the next step

“Potential donors undergo extensive testing, including blood work and imaging in addition to a thorough physical exam at the time of evaluation to ensure that they are healthy,” says Abhinav Humar, M.D., Chief, Division of Transplantation at UPMC. Donors can be either related family, or unrelated friends, neighbors, co-workers or “anyone who is coming forward to donate willingly for altruistic purposes.”

Because liver transplant is the “only curative and lifesaving procedure for patients with end stage liver disease,” Humar recommends “living liver donor surgery for more and more patients now, especially as the waiting list has grown and receiving an organ in a timely manner is becoming more difficult.”

Liver disease patients that are able to receive transplants earlier have better and faster recovery time, and better outcomes. While recovery times may vary, the liver begins to “regenerate immediately following surgery and will fully regenerate within 8 weeks of surgery, says Mazariegos.

“Potential donors undergo extensive testing, including blood work and imaging in addition to a thorough physical exam at the time of evaluation to ensure that they are healthy”.

New solutions

One of the challenges of living donor surgery between a parent and a child is initial separation between the two loved ones after surgery.

One of the ways that Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC addresses this concern is to “offer video conferencing so the donor-parent can see and speak to their child a day or two following surgery,” says Mazariegos. Staff provides “every possible assistance to connect the donor-parent to their child as they both recover.”

Other living donor candidates may hesitate to be living donors due to needed time off from work or school following surgery, which can of course result in the loss of wages. It’s important to consider the risks of living donation, and “just as important to consider the benefits derived from saving the life of a critically ill child,” emphasizes Mazariegos.

Making a difference

As one considers living donation, it is also important to note that lives can be saved through registering to be an organ, eye and tissue donor upon death. Registering to be an organ, eye and tissue donor is the “best way to make sure your generous decision to save and heal lives is known and can be honored,” says David Fleming, the president and CEO for Donate Life America, an organization dedicated to maximizing the number of donated organs, eyes and tissue available for lifesaving transplants. Registering is easy at RegisterMe.org.

With the available professionals and institutions that provide effective procedures and resources for both the donor and recipient, living donations are “the incredible gift of life to give loved ones,” says Humar.