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Nation’s organ transplant network proposes a new system for distributing livers

Nation’s organ transplant network proposes a new system for distributing livers

NPR – ROB STEIN

Himanshu Patel ran a convenience store in Georgia until about a year ago, when his liver failure got so bad he had to quit.

“I just couldn’t stand up on my feet at all,” says Patel, 39, of Waycross, Ga. “I just had to stop working.”

Now, he’s waiting anxiously to learn if his doctors have found a liver for him so he can undergo a transplant.

“They told me, ‘You will need a liver transplant — without a liver transplant you might not survive,’ ” Patel says.

Piper Su is waiting, too. She’s also 39 but lives about 700 miles north in Alexandria, Va. She’s still working as a lawyer, but says it’s getting harder and harder.

“I tend to get very tired,” Su says. “Often times, I’ll have sharp pains in my abdomen from my liver voicing its displeasure. And then I’ve developed a condition in my legs, which can be very painful.”

Patel and Su are among more than 16,000 Americans waiting for a liver transplantbecause of conditions such as hepatitis, cancer or cirrhosis. But only about 7,000 livers are donated each year. So they know their odds aren’t great.

And their chances also vary based on where they live.

“In some areas of the country, patients have to wait a lot longer than in other areas,” says Julie Heimbach, a transplant surgeon at the Mayo Clinic. “They have to get much sicker before they can access a liver transplant, depending on where they live.”

Heimbach chairs a committee for the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nation’s organ transplant network, which has proposed a new system for distributing livers.

“We’re just trying to make it just a little bit more equal so that there’s not such a disparity depending on where you live,” Heimbach says.

Under the current system, the nation is divided into 11 regions, and the sickest patient on the waiting list in each region gets the next compatible liver that becomes available in that region.

In some regions, patients have to wait until they’re facing a 93 percent risk of dying within the next three months. In other regions, patients get transplants when their risk is only 13 percent, according to UNOS.

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