It has been more than 60 years since the first successful U.S. human organ transplant. In 1954, a dedicated, multidisciplinary team of surgeons, physicians and anesthesiologists coalesced at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston to help 23-year-old identical twin brothers, Richard and Ronald Herrick.

Ronald gave his dying brother a kidney and eight more years of life. This pioneering spirit of giving has lived on in Maine, where Ronald moved from Massachusetts and lived until the age of 79.

Maine leads New England in the registration of adults who want to become organ donors: 55 percent of the population in Maine has registered, compared to only 5 percent in Vermont. In spite of this impressive effort, much remains to be done to reach the level of awareness and support of organ donation achieved by states such as Montana, where 82 percent of adults have registered to become organ donors upon their death.

Today, close to 100 Mainers are waiting for kidney transplants.

The need for donor organs is nothing short of a national public health crisis. Nationally, more than 123,000 people are waiting for organ transplants. On average, 30 people in the United States will die each day on a waiting list.

In spite of increased awareness regarding organ donation and transplantation, the gap between supply and demand continues to widen. In theory, there is great support for organ donation; more than 90 percent of Americans claim to support the concept. But donor registration rates indicate that far fewer people actually take the steps needed to enroll as a potential donor.


Misconceptions about organ donation continue to fuel ambivalence or downright reluctance to register as an organ donor. Some believe that hospital staff will not work as hard on life-saving measures if they know that a patient is a registered organ donor. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Nor is it true that people are “too old” or “too unhealthy” to be considered. Medical criteria drive these decisions, and there are no automatic cutoff ages for donation. And although nearly one-fifth of all transplants are performed with a living donor organ, there is still fear among potential donors that donation is unsafe and unregulated.

Innovative solutions to the organ donor shortage have ranged from offering donors payment or other incentives to a system of “opting out” — in which people are presumed to have consented to organ donation unless they specifically state that they do not want to donate organs — instead of the current system, which requires people to “opt in” and explicitly declare that they are interested in becoming an organ donor.

Although other countries have successfully implemented both of these options, they remain controversial in the United States, and the sale of organs for transplantation remains illegal. In the meantime, thousands will die each year waiting for organs that could have been used to save lives.

It is a complex problem without a single, simple solution. Nevertheless, a single person can make a big difference: One deceased organ donor can save eight lives and through paired donation, a living donor willing to donate one kidney can save dozens of lives.

Last fall, Maine Medical Center performed the first-of-its-kind surgery in Maine — a triple kidney transplant chain involving three donors and three recipients, all Maine residents. All of the surgeries were done during a 15-hour, six-surgery marathon Nov. 4 at MMC. Dr. Juan Palma performed surgery on the donors, and Dr. James Whiting performed surgery on the recipients, along with support of a team of about 50 other health care professionals.


The transplant chain was unique for its size — a first for Maine — and because it was created using an innovative donor-recipient matching procedure called “kidney paired donation.”

This was made possible because of the generosity of Stanley Galvin of Pemaquid, an altruistic donor who started the chain of three donors and three recipients because “I had two kidneys and I only needed one.” He said it was the best way he could think of to give back to his adopted state of Maine and a community he has grown to love.

April is National Donate Life Month, and the message is simple: If you haven’t already, learn the facts about organ donation and start the conversation with your family. The ultimate gift is the gift of life, and 100 Mainers are ready and waiting.

John Vella, M.D., is medical director of the Maine Transplant Program at Maine Medical Center in Portland, and Ardyce Peters, is MMC’s kidney transplant administrative director.

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