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Mike Hartsig believes it's only fair to give committed organ donors the first chance to receive them. Hartsig, 45, has battled diabetes since childhood, taking its toll on his kidneys and pancreas. He received transplants 10 years ago, after a wait of more than three years. Hartsig then heard about the voluntary organ-donation network called LifeSharers. After family, its 3,486 members agree to give other members preference in receiving their organs. If a match cannot be found within the network, the organs are released to the larger list of more than 90,000 people awaiting transplants in the United States. The group has 14 members in the Tucson area, including Hartsig and his wife, and its ranks have been growing steadily for years. For more information, visit lifesharers.com or call (888) ORGAN88.

Why are you an organ donor?

I've always been an organ donor, since high school--since I knew about it ... just as a good thing to do. And now that I've received organs, I realize, (after) all the studies I did before I received my organs, how short the organ supply is and how we need more donors.

Why are you a member of LifeSharers?

What LifeSharers stands for, I believe in it, because, typically, the people who receive organs--70 percent of them--said that they weren't organ donors prior to needing their organs. I couldn't believe that, because I've always supported it, and I waited so long for organs. And what LifeSharers tries to do is, if you support organ donation, you should get first crack at the organs. So, among ourselves now, we have 3,500 members, maybe, but it's been growing for the last five years.

Can you explain the LifeSharers donation process?

Among those 3,500 people, if one of us is registered with UNOS--the United Network for Organ Sharing (the official transplant waiting list)--and needs an organ ... and one of our members becomes brain dead and a potential organ donor, we will through paperwork--it hasn't been tested in court yet-- ... direct one of our member's organs to another one of our members. Directed organ donation has always been legal: Like, if I knew you were waiting for a heart, and I've been an organ donor, and my wife knows I'm an organ donor, and I died, and we're a match, my family could direct my organs to one of our loved ones or someone we know. So, our 3,500 members, if one of our own organs becomes available, it gets directed to one of us waiting on the (LifeSharers) list, regardless of whether we've been on UNOS's list for one day or five years. If one of our member's organs won't fill the need for one of our own members, it will then be offered to UNOS, and then the organs will be used. Because you don't want to waste any organs.

You said it hasn't been tested in court. Does that mean no one has given organs through LifeSharers yet?

Correct. One of our own members hasn't been declared brain dead yet in a hospital to donate their organs. ... If I died, and one of my lungs was good and my heart ... one of my B-positive blood-type (organs) would go to somebody on our members' list first, (who) was waiting for a heart, that was B-positive. I could donate to John Doe-somebody, you know, Joe Smith. I don't know him personally, but, through our organization, my wife would fill out the paperwork saying I want to donate Mike's organs to Joe Smith. And then, boom, that guy gets a heart.

How bad is the organ shortage?

I've had my organs 10 years; I got on the list about 13, 14 years ago--45,000 people were waiting for organs (there are 90,642 as of press time, according to UNOS). And, statistically, we're getting about 15,000 brain-dead (potential) donors a year declared in hospitals. But we're only receiving 5,000 of those donors' organs. So we're only getting about a third of potential organs. If we had a 100 percent donation rate, there probably wouldn't be a waiting list.

You've kind of already answered this, but let me ask again: Why does it matter who gets your organs?

Why does it matter, if I'm a donor, who gets my organs? Well, it doesn't. Organ donation is based on being altruistic and just to give to anybody. And before I heard about LifeSharers, I would have given my organs to anybody on the list. It's a critical need. But, now, when I found out that 70 percent of people who receive the gift of life never really supported organ donation--come on, that's not right.

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