For decades, surgeons have traveled to far-off hospitals to remove organs from brain-dead donors and then rushed back to transplant them. Now an experiment in the Midwest suggests there may be a better way: Bring the donors to the doctors instead.
A study out Tuesday reports on liver transplants from the nation's first free-standing organ retrieval center. Nearly all organ donors now are transported to Mid-America Transplant Services in St. Louis from a region including parts of Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas.
Removing organs at this central location near the four hospitals that do transplants saves money, the study found. The livers spent less time outside the donor's body, which at least in theory improves the odds of success. Doctors also think they are getting more usable organs from each donor, though this study only looked at livers.
Transplant experts say this could become a new standard, and groups in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Denver, Chicago and Ann Arbor, Mich., have started or are exploring similar ventures.
"It's kind of a foreign concept so it's taken some time for this to catch on, but I think it will. It makes so much sense," said Dr. William Chapman, a transplant surgeon at Washington University in St. Louis, which uses the Mid-America center.
About 28,000 transplants were done in the United States in 2012; more than 121,000 people are on the waiting list now.
Donor families have not balked at sending their loved ones' bodies out of town to Mid-America, the region's organ procurement organization.
"At first it bothered us," said Stacey Smith, whose 21-year-old son, Cameron Greenwood, became an organ donor in 2010 after dying of complications from diabetes. But she said Mid-America's staff explained why it was best to move him from the small hospital in Branson, Mo., to St. Louis, a four-hour drive away.
"These people sat down and prayed with us, they cried with us, they treated us like he was their own child, and that just made a huge difference," Smith said. They called to say his heart and both kidneys had gone to three different recipients, plus tissue and bones to help 50 others.
"It really made us realize how much organ donors are heroes. We had no clue how many lives one person could save and change."