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Potential changes in organ transplant policy could be longer wait times in Wisconsin

There are more than 120,000 people waiting for an organ transplant in this country. Some will never make it to operating table. A national group is exploring options of balancing the donor pool to help change that.

For Wisconsin's Lauren Chapman, life is becoming easier after receiving a kidney earlier this year.

“I feel better energy wise. I know with dialysis I was anemic and I was really really tired all the time. I’m still kind of tired, but I feel I have better moments where I have lots of energy and I can be up. And I’m back to work.” Chapman says.

She’s was on the waiting list at Froedtert Hospital in for almost five years. She says, “They can just say oh you’re on the list, they can’t tell you where you are or anything because of confidentiality… which gets frustrating.”

Last September Chapman decided to join a second wait-list, this one at the University of Wisconsin. By late February, Chapman got the life changing call she’d been waiting years for. She said, “They said how soon can you get here? So we got everything together and raced down to the UW hospital and I got the kidney the next morning.”

Organ transplant wait times can vary, UW-Madison has performed more transplants than any hospital in the Midwest since 1988. Doctor Dixon Kaufman is the head of transplant surgery at the UW. He says, “Our waiting times tend to be a little bit shorter than national. That’s a good thing, that’s the way we all want it to be.”

Kaufman says regional supply of organs helps make that possible, and the supply comes from people willing to donate

According to data collected in 2012 by Donate Life, almost 60 percent of people 18 or older in Wisconsin are registered organ donors. Wisconsin is not alone; it’s joined by almost the entire Midwest. In Minnesota, 62 percent of adults are organ donors. Iowa is at 76 percent, Indiana is at 69, and Illinois is at 53. Michigan is the outlier at 39 percent

Then take a look at the three most populated states in the country. In California, 34 percent of adults are signed up to donate. In New York, 20 percent. In Texas, just 17 percent.

Kaufman says, “We would love to see the wait times go down for everybody. The best way to do that is to enhance the organ donation process.”

Doctors from a group that sets the rules for organ distribution are exploring changes that would send organs from higher donor bases like Wisconsin and the Midwest to areas where the need is greater. The goal would be to give the organs to people most desperately in need, and who likely have been waiting the longest.

Kaufman says, “If you change the allocation system to tilt it in one direction or the other, it comes at the expense of someone. If I get one more kidney from this part of the country, that means that part of the country is losing something. But really what we want is a rising tide that lifts everybody up. Not just rearrange the chairs on the deck, but we need more chairs.”

Kaufman says the solution is encouraging organ donation programs in other parts of the country, and continuing to build a stronger donor base like Wisconsin and the Midwest.

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