The gift of life: Providence physicians highlights the importance of organ donation

Providence marks Donate Life Month

In recognition of Donate Life Month, Providence Spokane Digestive Health Institute’s Aradhna Seth,M.D. raises awareness about liver disease and the importance of organ donation. 

Imagine staring into your reflection as an unrecognizable figure gazes back at you. Suddenly your schedule as a busy mother isn’t arranging playdates, soccer games, and dance recitals, it’s booking weekly appointments to have fluid drained from your belly. Imagine needing a new liver and having to wait until you are high enough on the list to receive a new one. Now imagine being told there is a possibility you could die while waiting for the liver. Suddenly you are left with the thought of leaving behind the laughter of your children, familiar touch of your partner, and comforting hugs of your parents, if that liver never becomes available.   

This was the reality for Jane*, and it is a reminder why organ donation is the gift of life. 

Cirrhosis of the liver is a term medical professionals use when talking about permanent scarring or damage of the entire liver. While patients often ask about the liver’s ability to regenerate, there is ultimately a point when transplant is the only option. Fluid buildup in the belly or lungs, bleeding, liver cancer, or confusion, to name a few, indicate serious complications of cirrhosis. It is a commonly held misconception that alcohol is the only reason for people to develop cirrhosis. This misbelief can alienate patients, shutting them off from others for fear of being stigmatized as an alcoholic. The worsening epidemic of obesity and diabetes has caused non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) to become the leading causes of liver transplantation in this country. Other common causes of cirrhosis include chronic hepatitis B, autoimmune liver disease, and underlying genetic disorders. Fortunately, the advent of hepatitis C treatment has decreased the number of patients with hepatitis C-related liver disease requiring transplant.  

With respect to alcohol related liver disease (ALD), it may be time to re-examine the accepted drinking culture and behavior in the United States. Several healthcare societies, including the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD), demonstrated a steady rise in ALD prior to COVID-19 spreading. Cases have continued to increase during the pandemic. Younger individuals are increasingly affected, particularly women. I routinely hear patients assume they are immune to ALD if they “only drink beer or wine” or “are only in their 30s” or “only drink on weekends.” While the cause is not always clear-cut, misconceptions can perpetuate a false sense of security.  

It is important that we continue to acknowledge the pivotal role that mental health and poverty play in people’s relationship with alcohol and food. People frequently use alcohol and food as an emotional crutch to numb traumas, cope with stress, deal with dysfunction, and combat aimlessness. Our community must prioritize a proactive approach to provide affordable resources for mental health, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and preventative education for nutrition to combat ALD and NAFLD.  

The process for undergoing placement on the wait list for a liver transplant is daunting for patients and their families. It consists of juggling a calendar full of appointments with your liver specialist, transplant surgeon, nurse coordinator, dietician, social worker, and financial counselor. This is not an easy task for someone who is in excellent health, let alone someone with a chronic illness that frequently impedes memory and concentration. That is why it is crucial that patients have a strong personal support network and easy access to their transplant team. Liver transplant centers have classically been in large, metropolitan areas, which can be restrictive for many patients. 

Navigating the various appointments, testing requirements, and worst of all, the complexities of your healthcare insurance plan can be a full-time job. At Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, we provide liver transplant care close to home. We want patients to be able to focus on what’s truly important, their health. Providence provides a personalized experience with streamlined access to your transplant team. We believe liver transplantation should not be reserved for those in a major U.S city or those well-off financially. As our country’s wealth gap widens, it is more important than ever to make liver transplantation easy to access.   

Ultimately, our friend Jane died in a hospital surrounded by loved ones. Staff recorded her heartbeat and placed the recording inside a teddy bear for her children to remember their mother. A week later, someone else on the transplant list received the phone call they’d been waiting for.  

There are more than 100,000 people waiting for an organ transplant in the United States, more than 11,000 of those people waiting specifically for a liver. Every nine minutes another person is added to that wait list. Seventeen people die per day waiting for an organ transplant. Every organ donor can pass on the gift of life to up to eight people. I hope you’ll consider being one of them. Learn more about becoming an organ donor by visiting Donate Life Northwest. 

This article is dedicated to Jane* (name changed to protect identity) and the dozens of patients dear to our hearts who have died while waiting for an organ transplant. Please consider registering to be an organ donor.