Steamboat DMV has state’s highest percentage of organ donors
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County ranks first in the state for organ, eye and tissue donor designation for 2020, according to the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles and the Donor Alliance.
“Donors save lives,” said Andrea Smith, director of communications for the Donor Alliance. “It’s that simple. Their act of graciousness saves the life of someone else.”
And Colorado ranked first in the country for 2019 — putting the county at the top of the entire nation in terms of people who elect to be an organ and tissue donor when they renew or apply for a new driver’s license.
“It’s really admirable and remarkable and such a huge benefit to society,” said John Gutowski, executive director of transplant services at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. “So many lives are saved by organ and tissue donation. It’s a great thing to be proud of for a community.”
About 80% of people who went to the DMV office in Steamboat Springs said yes to adding their names to the donor registry, well above the state average of 68.25% and the national average of 58%.
And it isn’t an easy question to answer, especially while going through the routine task of a trip to the DMV.
“We want people to think about it ahead of time and get the facts and do the research,” Smith said.
By law, the question will be asked, she said.
While a sudden and traumatic death isn’t something anyone likes to think about, Smith emphasizes the importance of family discussions now.
When answering either “yes” or “no” at the DMV, that is first-person authorized advanced directive, she said.
“That will make it easier on your family or loved ones to know what you wanted no matter what the decision is,” she said.
Smith said she has often heard from families about how grateful they are their loved ones made the decision in advance.
“It is one less decision they have to make amid grief and trauma,” she said.
108,089: People waiting for lifesaving organ transplants nationally
20: Average number of people who die each day waiting for a lifesaving transplant
12,587: Number of people who provided the gift of organ donation upon their death in 2020
8: Number of lives that can be saved by one organ donor
75: Number of lives that can be saved or healed by one tissue donor
The Donor Alliance is the federally designated nonprofit organization that facilitates organ and tissue donation in Colorado and most of Wyoming. They are the ones who go through the process of procuring organs and tissues after a person has been declared deceased, Smith explained.
“We are the ones who carry the coolers,” she added.
The organization also partners with the DMV to maintain the donor registry and ensure there are educational materials available in the offices.
Public education “Is the most critical component to our industry,” Gutowski said. “When you think about organ and tissue donation, without education, you can’t increase the pool of people willing to give the gift of life when unable to survive a trauma. Without those donors, we wouldn’t be able to transplant and save lives every day.”
And organ recovery can only happen under specific conditions — only after the death of someone occurs in a hospital and when they have been put on a ventilator, Smith said.
“That’s why it is important that everyone is designated as being a potentially viable for an organ transplant,” Smith said. “These are people’s lives hanging in the balance.”
Being able to immediately access the donor registry is critical for donations when decisions and organ recoveries often have to be made in a matter of minutes.
If a wish for organ donation is only written on someone’s will and locked in a safe at home, that information would not likely be accessed quickly enough to follow through with the directive.
“We want to shorten the time between the donor to recipient as much as possible,” Gutowski said.
Tissue donation has more flexibility, Smith said.
While many people who pass away are able to donate tissue, Gutowski said there’s a lot more scarcity on the organ side.
For the approximately 2,000 people on the transplant waitlist in Colorado alone, “that can be incredibly difficult,” he said.
Smith addressed some of the myths around organ and tissue donation. For one, the little heart graphic on a person’s license is not what is used to determine whether someone is a donor. After a person has been declared dead, the electronic database is immediately checked.
Also, the procurement team is completely separate from the team of doctors and nurses who are going to do everything in their power to save lives, she said.
One of the biggest barriers, aside from a basic understanding of what being a donor means, is people thinking their health or age preclude them from being a viable donor, Smith said.
“Lots of people rule themselves out medically,” she said. “And that’s something we highly discourage. A lot of people think something rules them out, when in fact it doesn’t.”
On age, Smith said they’ve had organ donors who were in their 80s and tissue donors who were older than 100.
There is no cost to the family throughout the donation process, she said.
In terms of organs, there are eight that can be donated: two kidneys, two lungs, the liver, the heart, the pancreas and the small intestine.
Kidneys are the most transplantable, Gutowski said, both from living and deceased donors. The next most common is liver.
The uses of tissue are less known, Smith said.
“There are so many lifesaving and healing uses for tissues,” Smith said.
That can include lifesaving skin grafts for burn victims, heart valves, bone grafts, veins and tendons. Smith spoke about a man with a tumor on his arm who was able to get a humerus transplant and avoid amputation. Corneas can give people their eyesight back.
In 2020, Donor Alliance recorded 622 lives saved in Colorado and Wyoming through organ transplantation. There were also 1,899 tissue donors who provided lifesaving and healing tissue to thousands of recipients in need.
Before you go into the DMV for a new license, get the facts, Smith advises.
“Understand how important that decision truly is,” Smith said. “Discuss it with loved ones and people who are important to you in life, and consider what you would do if you or someone in your own family needed a lifesaving donation.”
For the families of people who donated, Smith said she has seen it provide “a tiny bit of solace in what otherwise is a black hole of grief and despair.”
It is a truly altruistic act, Smith added, without any expectation for compensation.
“It’s really an accomplishment for the people of Routt County — it shows generosity, care and love for the community. And the understanding we are all connected,” Smith said.
For more information about organ, eye and tissue donation and transplantation or how to sign up on the Donate Life Colorado Registry, visit donatelifecolorado.org.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 outlines non-surgical and surgical treatment options for hip injuries.