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DARBOY, Wis. (AP) — A left ventricular assist device, along with a bulky battery pack and controller, has been a part of Bruce Nechodom's life since since his heart attack in late 2013.
The 55-year-old is one of more than 2,300 people in Wisconsin on a waiting list for an organ — in his case through the University of Wisconsin Hospital transplant program.
"I've got to carry a control with me, a couple big batteries in my pockets, but (it) is keeping me alive," Nechodom said. "They tell me the average wait is 290-some days ... I'm just waiting for that call. It's going to come sooner or later."
Nechodom, who spent 47 days in the hospital following his heart attack, described the left ventricular assist device as a portable life-support system. His wife of 33 years, Tanya, changes the bandages associated with the device daily.
Transplant specialists said there's a gap between the number of organs available for transplant and the need. Dr. Johnny Hong, director of Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Transplant Center, said he sees the gap throughout Wisconsin. The Transplant Center is a joint effort between Froedtert Hospital, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and the Blood Center of Wisconsin.
"Only a third on the list will get transplanted every year," Hong said. "A significant number of patients — predominately liver patients — will die because organs just don't come sooner."
Statewide there are more than 2,300 people on waiting lists for organ transplants, said Greg Asmus, hospital development supervisor with the Wisconsin Donor Network in Milwaukee. Nationally there are more than 123,000 people waiting for an organ.
"Those are big numbers, and people get scared off by big numbers, but what we want to make sure people know is these aren't numbers, these are our neighbors and our friends," Asmus said. "We don't have enough organs to fill that gap. The most recent statistic tell us 21 people are going to die today around the country waiting for their chance at a life-saving organ."
Four hospitals in the state perform transplants: Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center; Children's Hospital of Wisconsin; Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin; and the University of Wisconsin Hospital transplant program.
University of Wisconsin doctors performed 425 transplants last year; including 252 kidneys, 14 hearts, and 32 lungs, according to the hospital. The Blood Center of Wisconsin, through its Wisconsin Donor Network, facilitated 198 organ transplants in 2014.
Asmus said only a very small percentage of donors die in a manner that allows their organs to be used for transplants.
"Donation is a rare opportunity," he said. "You have to die in a manner that will be consistent with your organs being preserved and able to be passed on to another. That's only about 1 to 2 percent of deaths."
Hong said Froedtert performed 41 liver transplants last year, up from 26 in 2013 and about 15 in 2012. He said that number has been increasing thanks to medical procedures allowing doctors to use portions of the liver to help multiple patients.
"In the past, the center only offered deceased-donor whole organ (transplants)," he said. "Now we're able to offer ... the whole organ from a deceased donor, a split liver from a deceased donor, or a half organ from a live donor."
Hong said transplant medicine continues to move forward with researchers working to develop new techniques for transplants and organ preservation.
"The trials and research projects are geared toward 'How do we increase the number of transplantable organs — because of the shortage — or organs we thought were not transplantable," he said.
That includes work developing methods to resuscitate some livers and a machine to give transplant doctors additional time to evaluate lungs for possible transplant.
"We'd like to convert those organs we thought were not transplantable to a state when they can be transplanted and you can save lives," Hong said.
Sandy McCrory, donor liaison with Aspirus Wausau Hospital , sees both sides of the decision to donate.
"On one hand we're helping a grieving family because they just lost their loved one — it can be hard, especially with the younger donors — and on the other hand we're elated because they're going to get to help other people and we're going to be able to save some more lives," McCrory said. "It's very busy and it's very emotionally taxing. You put a lot of yourself into these."
She said preparation — talking about wishes ahead of time and filling out donor paperwork — can make the donation decision easier for family.
"Some donors are already signed up on the registry and have indicated they are a donor, and that's legal consent, and we approach families with that, 'Did you know your loved one signed up to be an organ donor?'" McCrory said. "That is a much easier thing to do because a family is not then sitting there wondering, 'Is this the right decision? Is this what they would have wanted?' It becomes much, much, easier."
Both Asmus and McCrory said potential donors can sign up on a donation registry at sites like yesIwillwisconsin.com or when renewing a driver's license. A family discussion is also a key part of the process.
"When you lose a loved one you have enough to worry about," Asmus said. "To know what the wishes would be, and to be able to carry out those wishes, that's usually a tremendous sense of relief and satisfaction with the families."
Nechodom, who has two grown sons and 10 grandchildren, said he tries not to think about when the call will come, but he's also acutely aware that when it does, it means someone else has died.
"What I think about when I get this transplant is how I'm going to feel about the person who gave up their life so I could live," Nechodom said. "That's the most important thing I have to deal with... It'll be gratitude."
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