City Trying New Way to Expand Organ Donor Pool

A special emergency response unit will become the first in the country to help family members of the recently deceased authorize organ donation in a new way that could greatly expand the donor pool.

Until now, only the relatively small percentage of people who die in hospitals have been eligible to donate organs. When someone dies at home, it’s not legal for emergency responders to ask family members about possible organ donation.

Experts believe finding a way to reverse this -- by reaching people where they live and die -- would significantly increase organ donation.

Starting Wednesday, a team of organ transfer specialists will monitor radio EMS calls and will hurry to the scene when a cardiac arrest is fatal. They will be operating what amounts to a parallel ambulance operation, but they must do so in a way that their presence is unknown to the primary emergency responders, whose job is to attempt resuscitation.

Only when resuscitation fails, will the Organ Preservation Unit step forward and discuss organ donation with family members or other authorized guardians. Emergency responders and their counterparts in hospital emergency rooms are forbidden by law and medical ethics to discuss organ donation with family members, even after a patient has died.

The new pilot program initially will only be at Bellevue Hospital and only affect people in Manhattan. The trial will be further limited in a number of ways: potential donors must be between the ages of 18 and 60, they are only being considered for kidney donation and the Organ Preservation Unit will only operate between 4 p.m. and 12 p.m.

After six months, the city will evaluate the program and decide whether to expand it.

In New York City, there are close to 8,000 people waiting for organ transplants. About 50,000 people in the city die annually, but only about 1,500 meet the strict criteria for organ donation. There have only been about 250 organ donors in each of the last two years.

Due to its limited scope, the federally-funded test project isn't expected to increase the number of donors by more than a handful in the coming months.

Instead, the pilot is primarily focused on establishing a new method of getting to people outside the hospital. It could then be fine-tuned and, if it's working, expanded.