TN organ transplant policies could mean difference between life and death

(WMC-TV) - A leading Memphis surgeon says the lives of Mid-South transplant patients will be at risk unless changes are made in the way organs are shared in Tennessee.

Dr. James Eason, leader of Methodist Transplant Institute, is asking for special government permission to bring donated organs to Memphis from middle and east Tennessee.

It is a decision that could literally mean the difference between life and death.

Steve Jobs' now famous 2009 liver transplant at Methodist University Hospital made worldwide headlines. But quietly, 138 lesser known patients received new livers at Methodist Transplant Institute last year.

It is now the fourth largest liver transplant program out of 120 nationwide.

Dr. James Eason says all those transplants have been made possible by a statewide organ sharing agreement, which is going away.

He says the Mid-South's organ procurement organization does a good job but falls far short of meeting the demand for organs.

"Their volume is not adequate to support the need. It's like saying a well stocked pond should feed the country rather than the ocean. It simply cannot be done. Now our patients are going to lose. We're going to lose," explained Dr. Eason.

For nearly 20 years, the Mid-South Transplant Foundation in Memphis and Tennessee Donor Services in Nashville have worked together.

A donated organ would go to the sickest patient in Tennessee, regardless of where they were receiving a transplant in the state.

But the federal government dissolved that sharing agreement because it is inconsistent with government regulations.

Last year, Mid-South Transplant Foundation of Memphis procured 62 organs for transplant in Tennessee.

Nashville-based Tennessee Donor Services obtained 220, more than three times as many.

Dr. Eason says Mid-South transplant patients will face longer odds of survival if they have to rely on the new organ sharing rules that take effect in December:

"So we think what's going to happen is patients waiting for liver and kidneys in Memphis, their waiting time is going to go up tremendously," said Dr. Eason. "They're going to get sicker and they're going to die while waiting for transplant."

Eason says, ideally, the state should have one organ procurement organization but he says Mid-South Transplant Foundation recently has refused to discuss merging with its Nashville counterpart.

So instead, Methodist is asking the government for a waiver to allow the hospital to unite with Tennessee Donor Services to bring more donor organs to the Mid-South.

"We're asking for tremendous community support because our lives are at stake," said Dr. Eason.

In a statement, Mid-South Transplant Foundation says, "Mid-South Transplant Foundation recognizes that the allocation of organs is a complex issue and one that involves patients across the country, not just in Tennessee. Organ procurement organizations and transplant centers have different missions but our paths do cross as we work together for the common goal of saving lives. Mid-South Transplant Foundation has been, and is committed to, maximizing the number of donors in our community."

Methodist is asking its supporters to write letters of support to the government in favor of the waiver, allowing it to align with Tennessee Donor Services in Nashville.