ANDREA WOO – LAS VEGAS
It is late afternoon on a sweltering day, and a group of doctors at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada has gathered around the body of a teenage boy. His accidental death days earlier cut short a life of potential – but his parents’ decision to donate his organs is giving a second chance at life to others.
In operating room 17, three teams of surgeons get to work. For more than two hours, eight white-gloved hands at a time carefully cut, position and irrigate as others look on. On a table behind them, silver bowls of sterile ice await. A cardiac monitor beeps.
After examining the organs and arteries for abnormalities, the doctors are finally ready to remove the heart. They administer a solution for organ preservation and an anti-coagulant to prevent blood clots. To one side, a team member calls the receiving hospital. “We’ve just heparinized and we’ll cross-clamp within five minutes,” she says.
At 7:29 p.m., doctors place a clamp across the aorta and sterile ice into the body cavity. No longer beating, the heart is quickly removed, cleaned up and packed for transport. There is a sense of urgency; the heart must be transplanted within four hours of removal.
It is rushed down the hall and into a waiting vehicle bound for the airport, where it will then be loaded into a private jet. In all, seven of the boy’s organs will go to five recipients between the ages of 34 and 68, in Nevada, California and Utah.
From the corner of the operating room, Simon Keith has followed the entire operation. He is chief operating officer of the Nevada Donor Network (NDN), the not-for-profit organ procurement organization (OPO) that brought together the doctors in the operating room today. And the procedures he just witnessed have personal significance: Nearly 30 years ago, Keith himself received a life-saving heart transplant. He went on to become the first athlete to play a professional sport after such a procedure, and today, at 50, he’s one of the world’s longest-living heart-transplant recipients.
Keith – who was raised in Victoria, B.C., but had to look elsewhere for his transplant – is now using his unique position to call for improvements to what he describes as a “fragmented” organ-donation system in Canada.
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