Virginia center coordinates tissue donation and family care
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP)
Erin Leigh Laraway had been sick for a week when a doctor told her worried parents that she just had the flu and infections in both ears.
It was her 2nd birthday.
That night, Erin fell unconscious. The family hurried to the hospital and discovered she had something more serious: bacterial meningitis, an infection of the lining around the brain and spinal cord.
Two days later, Erin was brain dead.
Kristine Laraway can’t remember all the details of those awful days a decade ago. But she clearly recalls stating that she wanted her daughter to be an organ donor, since both parents had signed up to be donors.
That’s how Laraway came in contact with LifeNet Health, the nation’s largest nonprofit, full-service tissue bank as well as the agency that coordinates organ donation in Virginia.
A LifeNet coordinator came to the hospital and LifeNet kept in touch, as it does with all donor families, for months afterward to help them as they grieved.
Erin’s organs and tissues saved four lives.
Her liver went to a 5-month-old boy in intensive care and her kidneys to a 36-year-old mother of three. One heart valve was transplanted into an infant boy, while the other heart valve was transplanted into an infant girl.
“The fifth life that was saved was mine,” Laraway said in an interview on what would have been Erin’s 12th birthday.
“I made it through because of this, what she was able to do, and what LifeNet did for me,” Laraway said at LifeNet’s Virginia Beach headquarters. “When Erin died, it was like they reached out and they grabbed hold of my hand.”
While LifeNet is best known in its home state for organ donation, much of its work involves storing, processing and distributing donated tissues from more than 40 partner agencies nationwide.
LifeNet has distributed more than 1.7 million tissue grafts since it was founded 25 years ago by Bill Anderson, who became a donor himself when he died in a car accident in 2002.
LifeNet makes about $100 million annually, largely from the bone and tissue grafts it sells to surgeons to use as implants. The money pays for extensive grief support services for families of donors, community education and research and development.
According to LifeNet, one donor can save seven lives through donation of organs (the heart, liver, pancreas, both kidneys and both lungs) — but also can enhance more than 50 lives through tissue donation.
For example, skin can be grafted onto burn victims to help them heal. Bone, ligaments and tendons can be used in hip replacements or other surgeries that help people with degenerative bone and joint diseases walk with less pain. Heart valves can repair cardiac defects.
“We wouldn’t be able to do some of the surgeries that we do to help people” without companies like LifeNet, said Dr. Cy Kump, a Richmond orthopedic surgeon who has used LifeNet grafts.
Problems with transplants are rare because the grafts are tested so rigorously, Kump said.
Turning donated tissue into implants takes months.
When a potential donor dies, a hospital contacts LifeNet, and a LifeNet coordinator talks to the family to get a medical, social and behavioral history of the donor and get permission for donation if the person was not already signed up to be a donor.
Technicians go to the hospital to recover small pieces of tissue to be stored in a large walk-in freezer at LifeNet.
LifeNet’s labs test blood and lymph node samples from each donor to check for diseases.
Gloved and masked technicians dressed head to toe in protective suits work in sterile suites to disinfect small pieces of tissue and bone and cut them into shapes and sizes needed for various implants.
Most of the technicians have backgrounds in medicine or biology, but some are skilled carpenters who learn anatomy at LifeNet, said Mike Poole, director of tissue operations.
When surgeons and hospitals call LifeNet to order implants, the orders are filled in a distribution area where the packaged grafts are stored in a huge vertical lift.
“It’s very much like a production line,” said Lori Peoples, LifeNet’s supervisor of finished goods. “You just have to remember that it’s not a belt, it’s not a toy. It’s something very precious that we have to value.”
LifeNet’s involvement with donor families doesn’t end with the donation.
Laraway was so impressed with the way LifeNet took care of her family after Erin’s death — even a year later, when she called LifeNet a coordinator immediately remembered her as Erin’s mom — that she eventually got a job as an assistant in the donor family services department.
“I’ve had my time, I’ve had my grief,” Laraway said. “I’m just trying to help the next family along.”
LifeNet’s bereavement support includes a program in which people who receive donated tissue can write anonymous thank-yous; Laraway forwards the correspondence to the families of the donors.
More than 1,000 people have sent letters, cards and e-mails since the program started in July 2006. They include an 87-year-old woman grateful that a bone graft eased her pain so she can keep living in an apartment on her own and a 15-year-old soccer player who wanted to tell the donor family, “Thank you for giving me my joy back.”
On the Net:
LifeNet Health: http://www.lifenethealth.org
To sign up to be a tissue and organ donor: http://www.donatelife.net
Published in The Messenger 1.9.08