New Hope with Gently Used Parts

New evidence shows that you may never be too old to be an organ donor. Even if your health is less than perfect, you could make a big difference in someone else’s life. With rising demand for transplants, hospitals have had to look further afield to fill the need. This means that older people also increase their chances of receiving a transplanted organ sooner, so that they can enjoy their lives earlier and longer. People over 55 are the biggest beneficiaries of the trend.

Canada’s oldest donor was an 86-year-old liver donor (a year older than the oldest pancreas donor) and organ recipients range from 59 to 76. Older adults can also donate tissues such as skin, corneas and bone—including living bone such as that removed during total hip replacements, which can help others with bone disease heal faster. Even people with heart conditions, cancer or diabetes can donate organs that are not compromised—and new testing capabilities can determine their viability. There are also increasing number of live donors who sign on for organ swaps, or paired kidney exchanges that increase their chances of a good and timely match. (Kidneys are the most common transplanted organs.)

Frank Yaffa of Richmond Hill, Ontario, needed a new kidney at 70. He faced a choice: stay on dialysis three times a week for the seven to eight years it might take to find a perfect kidney match—or sign up for two less-than-perfect kidneys and shorten his wait time significantly. The extended criteria list for organ transplant offered him the possibility of two kidneys from the same donor, each operating at 50 to 60 per cent of normal. Together, they work as well as one perfect kidney. These kidneys might come from an older donor who may have had health problems such as diabetes or high blood pressure. By going this route, he got his kidneys within eight months and recovered well, just in time for the birth of his first grandchild. “I feel born again,” he says. “It’s wonderful.”

The five-year success rate of these transplants is not significantly different from the “perfect” list. Fay Saikkonen of Toronto was the first Canadian to go on the extended criteria list ten years ago when a rare cancer forced the removal of both her kidneys. Now, at 65, she is enjoying life with her 75-year-old kidneys and has signed a donor card herself. “Not enough people know about these transplants,” she says.