On December 23, 1954, Richard Herrick received the first successful live-organ transplant, a kidney, from his identical twin Ronald. The surgery was performed by a team led by Dr. Joseph Murray and Dr. David Hume at Brigham Hospital in Boston. Since that time, countless lives have been saved through increasingly common organ transplants. Sometimes the organ comes from relatives or friends — entertainer and lupus sufferer Selena Gomez recently received a kidney from her best friend — but often they’re donated by good-hearted living strangers or the recently deceased. To encourage people to donate, a new system has been proposed that would give a person who donates an organ a voucher for an organ in the future to be redeemed by a loved one.
Retired California judge Howard Broadman came up with the idea in 2014. His then 4-year-old grandson Quinn Gerlach has chronic kidney disease and is likely to need a transplant in the future. “I know Quinn will eventually need a transplant, but by the time he’s ready, I’ll be too old to give him one of my kidneys,” Broadman says. He considered donating a kidney now as a kind of abstract karmic down-payment. “But then I started thinking ‘this is bullshit – I should get something for this.’” He approached UCLA, and he and surgeon Jeffrey Veale developed the voucher system.
The program works like this:
A donor gives a kidney to a stranger on dialysis in exchange for a voucher.
The recipient’s family member or friend who is willing to donate but incompatible with the recipient donates a kidney and receives a voucher.
When a family member is in need of a transplant, the voucher is redeemed for a compatible organ if one is available. If not, they’ll be moved up the waiting list.
This sets off a “donation chain” that allows the matching of incompatible donors with compatible recipients. Each person who donates an organ actually helps two people: the immediate recipient and the family member who gets the voucher.
UCLA has been working with the US National Kidney Registry, which has already issued 21 kidney vouchers in 30 hospitals, each one of which initiated a donation chain that’s resulted in 68 new transplants. UCLA says their system has already saved the lives of 25 people.
Some are skeptical of the voucher system. For one thing, it’s far more complicated than other nations’ opt-out programs mentioned above, though it is less presumptive of a citizenry’s willingness to donate. Joy Riley of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics and Culture says that she’s skeptical about a system based on “trusting in a piece of paper with no guarantees.” There’s also concern that the voucher system discriminates against those without a family member or friend willing to donate.
Another different approach to getting organ donation underway. Whatever the mehtods are, the intent remains the same: save lives.