Getting a heart transplant in Tennessee sometimes hinged on whether the Department of Safety was open.
That's because the bodies of potential organ donors frequently arrived at hospitals without driver's licenses. With no IDs, the only way to verify the wishes of the deceased was to contact the Department of Safety to see if they had checked the donor box on their driver's license applications.
"If it was at night, on the weekend or a state holiday, there was no way to determine whether a person wanted to donate," said Janet Jarrard, public education coordinator for Tennessee Donor Services, an organ procurement agency. "There were probably many people who wanted to donate but fell through the cracks."
Jarrard is hopeful that will change with Donate Life Tennessee, a new online registry that launched April 28. Tennesseans can go to Donor Registry and sign up to be an organ or tissue donor.
The registry allows the two organ procurement agencies in Tennessee - Tennessee Donor Services and Mid-South Transplant Foundation, serving Western Tennessee - to determine at any time if a person is an organ donor. Those agencies are notified by hospitals when someone from their coverage area dies, even when the death occurs out of state.
Jarrard said another benefit of the registry is that it's a legally binding contract. Previously, even if someone indicated on his driver's license application that he wanted to be a donor, it wasn't legally binding unless the back of his license was signed. The signatures often rubbed off the license or were never signed, leaving the decision up to families.
"It puts the family in the situation of having to make a very difficult decision, during a stressful time when they are overwhelmed by grief," said Dr. Mark Wigger, medical director of cardiac transplants at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "A lot of times, families don't know whether the person wanted to be a donor or not."
Dr. Jeffrey Boord, a Vanderbilt University assistant professor of cardiology, said states that have implemented similar online registries have seen organ donations in crease. Tennessee is now one of about 45 states with such a system.
"If families have clear documentation of their loved ones' wishes, then it takes the burden off of them to make that decision," Boord said.
In Tennessee, more than 2,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant. In 2007, Boord said, 678 people received organ transplants and 127 people died waiting.
Information is detailed
Ashley Tollett, of Antioch, is one of the lucky ones.
A disease began causing her lungs to fail in 2005. She had to go on oxygen and was eventually hospitalized.
"Doctors called my family and said I wouldn't live for more than a few days without a transplant," Tollett said. "It came right in the nick of time."
Tollett, 21, said that since the 2006 transplant she has been feeling great. She said she's hopeful that the new online registry will help more people get the transplants they need.
"I am here today because of someone's selfless decision," Tollett said. "I can do anything with no limitations."
Jarrard said roughly a million Tennesseans have signed up to be organ donors. The goal is to double that number in three years.
Everyone who has indicated a desire to be an organ donor on his or her license in the past year and a half has had his or her information entered into the registry by the Department of Safety. The department will continue to enter information as people sign up in the future.
By signing up online, people can specify more detailed information, such as whether they want to give all of their organs or which ones they do want to donate. People can also indicate if they would be willing to donate their organs or tissue for research or educational purposes.
"One donor has the potential to save nine lives through organ donation, and enhance up to 50 more lives with cornea and tissue donation," Jarrard said.
“You Have the Power to Save Lives – Sign Your Donor Card & Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”
Your generosity can save up to eight lives through organ donation and enhance another 50 through tissue donation