(Gray News) – In October 2020, Jess Schnur learned that she would need a liver transplant to guarantee she lives past the age of 45.
Schnur, now 37 years old, knew that needing a transplant was always a possibility because she has an autoimmune liver disease. When she had an appointment for a checkup that October, she did not expect her situation to be so dire.
“We were blindsided,” she said. “It was a virtual visit, so I was in my kitchen talking to my doctor on the computer, and my husband was working in the back room and then he heard that. He came rushing in … and I was thinking ‘Oh my gosh, this could be happening.’”
Schnur and her husband made plans with their family to make sure to celebrate the holidays despite the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re gonna make it great and enjoy the life I have and hope for a miracle,” she said.
Schnur was listed for a transplant in February 2021 through the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a non-profit, scientific and educational organization that administers the only Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network in the United States.
In August 2021, she became one of over 40,000 patients who have had a successful organ transplant under the organization for that year.
“It’s just amazing,” Schnur said. “I am so grateful and so proud for everybody that has registered to be donors and have stepped forward and agreed to help everyone else.”
UNOS’s CEO Brian Shepard said the number of successful transplants, totaling 41,354, is a new record. The number of deceased organ donors has also increased for the 11th year in a row, with 13,861 donors.
“This is the first time that the United States has done 40,000 transplants in a single year,” he said. “In fact, it’s the first time any country has done this many transplants in a single year. And it’s the ninth year in a row that the United States has increased the number of deceased donor transplants.”
Kidneys were the highest organ in demand in 2021 with 24,669 transplants, followed by livers with 9,236 transplants and hearts with 3,817 transplants. Liver and heart transplants have set annual records for the past nine and 10 years respectively.
Hannah Smith contributed to the record number of transplants when she donated one of her kidneys to a stranger in 2021.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” she said. “I actually didn’t have any idea they even hit that … kind of goal until a couple weeks ago. It just feels pretty awesome to be a part of something so world-changing.”
Smith signed up to become a living donor in December 2020 after being inspired by a friend who made a similar sacrifice a few months prior. She said she found the man she donated to when his wife made a Facebook post looking for a kidney donor.
“I felt, like, a tug at my heart to kind of look into a living donation,” she said. “There’s a couple different organs that you can be a living donor for. So, I did my research and felt it led to do kidney donations… I had a gut feeling that this is something I should try to pursue.”
In January 2021, Smith’s donor journey began with tests and lab work to find her a good recipient match, with the process being delayed when she contracted COVID-19.
Shepard said the pandemic posed a challenge for UNOS’s operations at the beginning of 2020, when the general knowledge about the virus was limited and tests weren’t yet available. Without being able to accurately test for healthy donors, he said the number of U.S. transplants dropped significantly in March and April of 2020.
“We dropped by about 50% for four to six weeks,” Shepard explained. “We bounced back faster really than anybody else in the world. Other countries said 90% drops went on for months. But to figure out how to get transplants going again, to know which donors are OK to use and which ones might have COVID … because when it started, there weren’t tests for everybody. The transplant hospitals were going through all of the same issues that the other hospitals were going through.”
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic that continued into 2021, Shepard said everyone involved in the organ sharing network helped to keep things moving, and he was surprised the pandemic didn’t have a much bigger impact.
“I was worried it would slow us down more than it has, but the hospitals, the doctors and nurses, the folks who are doing the organ recoveries have all been really resilient and committed to getting this work done,” Shepard said. “When a deceased owner opportunity isn’t taken advantage of, it’s gone forever. You can’t postpone it, you can’t do it later when it’s more convenient or easier to do.”
Shepard said UNOS is continuing to build on the technology it provides to hospitals and organ recovery organizations. After a record-breaking year in 2021, he expects the organization to hit another milestone in 2022.
“We expect to continue to increase that number year after year … because there are still lots and lots of people waiting,” he said.
In much better health since her operation, Schnur continues to enjoy her life with few setbacks and makes a living working for Deaconess Health System in Evansville, Indiana. She said she knows firsthand that those who sign up to become deceased donors continue living on in someone else.
“We understand how hard it is, but for us, it’s like, ‘OK, a little bit of this patient. We did save something of them,’” she said. “We are always pushing, we don’t ever want to lose a patient. But then, to have them become a donor hero — it just means so much more to us and it makes us feel like we still did a good job with everyone.”
For Smith, donating has been a very rewarding experience. She said that there are a lot of misconceptions about being a living donor, but it has not had much of an impact on her day-to-day life.
“I feel completely back to normal — 100% back to my normal self,” she said. “Even if you choose to donate altruistically and you never know who you’re donating to, just knowing that you made a difference in someone’s life is such a huge thing.”
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