Wait times on the rise nationally for those in need of organs

BALTIMORE - At 30, Amy Sherald was feeling good.

She was running, hanging with friends and pursuing her dream of becoming an artist.

It was a routine doctors appointment that changed her life forever.

“I was told I have congestive heart failure,” Sherald said. “The doctor didn’t even understand how I made it into the office.”

The prognosis was clear. She would have to get a heart transplant.

For nine years, she changed her life dramatically. Sherald stopped running, gave up salt and waited.

And she waited.

“I kept going until my heart couldn’t run anymore,” she said.

Sherald was one of thousands of people across the country waiting for an organ transplant.

CLICK HERE for an in-depth look at Amy Sherald's story.

And the numbers are growing.

With better technology and cancer detection, the number of people waiting for organs is on the rise, and worrying medical leaders.

The number of donors has remained about the same, increasing half a percent each year.

As more people enter the list, doctors say those wait times continue to increase.

Between 1989-2014, the number of people on the wait list for organs went from 16,000 to more than 120,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Resources.

The most common organ on the national list is the kidney, followed by the pancreas and then the heart.

Dr. Jonathan Bromberg, chief of the Division of Transplantation at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said there are alarming societal trends causing the increase and wait times.

They include more obese patients, a growing population and newer indicators that show a person needs a new organ.

“And as more people get on the list, there aren’t enough donors to fill the need,” he said. “Then the waiting continues.”

Wait times depend on each person’s case and how long they can live on their current organ.

To be considered for a new organ, factors including blood type, height and weight, medical urgency and distance from hospital are taken into consideration.

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The process to get on the list can take a few months,” Bromberg said. “It’s not like you come in and sign up.”

He added that a wait time can average anywhere from weeks to months and years.

“One good thing we are seeing is that people are living longer while on the list, thanks to advances in technology,” he said.

As the list grows, the number of people dying while waiting for a transplant is also increasing, said Litsa Williams, director of community services at the Living Legacy Foundation.

She said an average of 18 people die a day waiting for a organ. This doesn’t count the number of people who take themselves off the list or no longer qualify for a transplant.

John Wilhide said he was just days away from dying, not sure if he would receive a liver transplant.

He was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, or cancer of the bile ducts, a rare disease had him placed on the transplant list a year earlier.

“The anticipation of the whole process is unsettling,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

At 3:30 in the morning, he received the news that he would be receiving a transplant.

It took about almost a year to find a match.

He was in tears and said the only way he could get through the process was by having a good support system.

Williams said in the last 10 years, there has been a growing awareness among people to donate.

She cited a recent Gallup poll that surveyed that 90 percent of people asked said they were in favor of organ donation.

“We have pushed hard to make this a social issue,” she said. “I think people are more aware of the importance of this.”

To help draw down wait times, transplant centers are encouraging more people to move to living donations, mainly in the realm of new kidneys.

National campaigns like “Share your spare,” are attempting to help match living donors to needed recipients.

Bromburg said it’s a healthier option for those waiting.

“You will always want a living organ instead of one from a cadaver,” he said.

At 39, Sherald is excited to be living. She never forgets the person’s heart that beats within her everyday.

“It’s in me everyday,” she said.

We invite you to learn more about organ donations and the impact they have on every person.

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