Things moved quickly when Jo Schumacher’s husband, Bob, died unexpectedly in 2014.
Through the blur of those early moments, she said she remembers getting a call from LifeNet Health regarding donating his tissue and cornea donations. It was a call she didn’t mind tending to.
“It kept me busy and I’m a believer in donations,” she said.
Few weeks later, Schumacher received a letter informing her that her husband’s corneas were donated to two women and that the women were able to see clearly.
This was only the beginning. She soon found out her husband’s tissue, skin and ligaments were being transplanted to those who needed it through the local health organization LifeNet Health.
LifeNet Health is a full-service tissue bank located in Renton. The center recovers, prepares and distributes tissue for transplantation, medical research and education.
A full-service tissue bank means the organization has the ability to “perform the recovery of donated gifts and we prepare those gifts and work with surgeons who utilize the tissues for patients in need and are able to transplant those tissues,” according to Levi Anderson, the Northwest general manager at LifeNet Health.
“We see the full-spectrum and that model is becoming more and more rare in the United States,” Anderson said. “That model gives us an opportunity to see and work with donor families, see how they react.”
Tissue and other organs are donated upon death and used either for transplants or research. A single person’s donation can go a long way.
“We know from our history that a single tissue donor at LifeNet Health can help over a 150 individual patients because we’re able to prepare those tissues in different ways and we’re able to make sure patients are getting exactly what they need,” said Anderson.
Schumacher knows this first hand. She said she was surprised to find that her husband’s donation helped nearly 60 people in need.
“I was astounded,” she said. “I don’t get impressed or surprised by a lot of things, but that was a jaw-dropper for me. I was so proud of Bob. I was thankful and honored that so many people could benefit from it. That’s when I started learning how simple a tendon or ligament can be for someone that has pain.”
Anderson said one of the biggest challenges the organization faces is misconceptions regarding donations and who is eligible to donate.
“I talk with a lot of people in the community who say ‘I had this injury’ or ‘I have this condition’ and they feel as though they need to procure them from being able to help others through donation,” he said. “We try to educate folks to make them understand that that’s not the case. You can have medical conditions, you can have different injuries and still be able to help other patients through donations. We want the experts, we want LifeNet Health to be able to fully evaluate to determine whether or not there’s a clinical need for any donated gifts.”
LifeNet Health evaluates a donor’s extensive medical history before any tissue is harvested, according to Anderson.
“Our commitment to quality requires us to look at all of that information, really evaluate it and make sure it’s going to be a safe gift from a patient who’s receiving it,” he said.
Even if a donation isn’t viable for transplant procedure, it is used for for research.
Apart from handling the clinical aspect of donations, LifeNet also has multiple programs that provide support for donor families and recipients.
“We also have programs that facilitate communication between willing recipients and donor families who might be interested in receiving that communication of thanks for those donated gifts,” Anderson said.
The organization also has programs tailored for kids, families who lost someone to suicide and other specialized resources.
Schumacher said she has appreciated LifeNet Health’s programs and that she’s benefited from their care.
“It’s a validation of Bob and and who he was,” she said. “Working with LifeNet Health, they recognize you for who you are and that you are an important person, you are a donor family member. Even if your loved one died and they gave their tissue or organs, it’s not centered around the donator or the giver. It’s also the donor family and friends.”
If you are interested in becoming a donor, the first step is to make sure you’re registered, said Anderson.
“Registration becomes a first-person consent as authorization for recovery of donated gifts upon your death,” he said. “Another piece we’re trying to hit home is that the federal regulatory environment requires participation of what we refer to as next of kin. It may not have to be a family member, but it has to be a knowledgable historian, someone who can speak the social practices of that individual so that we can rule out high risk and take all of their history into account when we’re determining quality and suitability. That’s where the conversation about your family comes in.”
It is critical to open the line of communication with family and clearly articulate one’s wishes upon death due to the compressed time frame the donation needs to made, Anderson said.
“From the time of death until the tissues are no longer viable for recovery, we only have a 24-hour window at most to perform the recovery,” he said. “It’s a very short time frame. If you think about all the logistical challenges involved in terms of communicating, not only with hospital that individual may be, but also having an extended phone conversation with the next of kin of family members. There’s a lot of effort, a lot of work that has to be compressed to that time frame before we can have our surgical team perform the recovery.”
Schumacher said she was surprised to realize how much she didn’t know about organ and tissue donations until her husband’s death.
“It’s one of those many things in life when you say, ‘It’ll happen when it happens,’” she said. “But what really surprised me was realizing how a simple, small thing can help someone with their day-to-day problems, and how many people can be helped by one person… it changes their life.”
For more information about LifeNet Health and donations, visit https://www.lifenethealth.org/lifenet-health-renton-wash.