Deanna Santana had assumed that people on organ transplant lists received matches. She didn't know some died while waiting. But in May 2011, after her 17-year-old son, Scott, was killed in a car accident, she learned what a precious gift organ and tissue donation can be.
"I would estimate it cost our family about $4,000 for me to donate a kidney to a stranger."
His heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and pancreas saved five people. His corneas enabled two others to see. And his bones, connective tissues and veins helped 73 individuals.
The donation's impact had a profound effect on his mother as well. In September 2016, she agreed to donate a kidney in a paired exchange of four people making the same sacrifice for four compatible strangers.
She gave up two weeks' worth of paid vacation to recuperate and covered lodging costs for loved ones during her transplant. Eventually, she qualified for state disability for part of her leave, but the compensation was less than her salary as public education and relations manager at Sierra Donor Services, an organ procurement organization in West Sacramento, California.
"I would estimate it cost our family about $4,000 for me to donate a kidney to a stranger," says Santana, 51. Despite the monetary hardship, she "would do it again in a heartbeat."
While some contend it's exploitative to entice organ donors and their families with compensation, others maintain they should be rewarded for extending their generosity while risking complications and recovering from donation surgery. But many agree on one point: The focus should be less on paying donors and more on removing financial barriers that may discourage interested prospects from doing a good deed.
"There's significant potential risk associated with donating a kidney, some of which we're continuing to learn," says transplant surgeon Matthew Cooper, a board member of the National Kidney Foundation and co-chair of its Transplant Task Force.
Although most kidneys are removed laparoscopically, reducing hospitalization and recuperation time, complications can occur. The risks include wound and urinary tract infections, pneumonia, blood clots, injury to local nerves causing decreased sensation in the hip or thigh, acute blood loss requiring transfusion and even death, Cooper says.
"We think that donation is a cost-neutral opportunity. It, in fact, is not."
Meanwhile, from a financial standpoint, estimates have found it costs a kidney donor in the United States an average of $3,000 to navigate the entire transplant process, which may include time off from work, travel to and from the hospital, accommodations, food and child care expenses.
"We think that donation is a cost-neutral opportunity. It, in fact, is not," says Cooper, who is also Director of Kidney and Pancreas Transplantation at MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute in Washington, D.C.
The National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 makes it illegal to sell human organs but did not prohibit payment for the donation of human plasma, sperm and egg cells.
Unlike plasma, sperm and eggs cells—which are "renewable resources"—a kidney is irreplaceable, says John J. Friedewald, a nephrologist who is medical director of kidney transplantation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Offering some sort of incentives could lessen the overall burden on donors while benefiting many more potential recipients. "We can eliminate the people waiting on the list and dying, at least for kidneys," Friedewald says.
On the other hand, incentives may influence an individual to the point that the donation is made purely for monetary gain. "It's a delicate balance," he explains, "because so much of the transplant system has been built on altruism."
That's where doing away with the "disincentives" comes into the equation. Compensating donors for the costs they endure would be a reasonable compromise, Friedewald says.
Depending on the state, living donors may deduct up to $10,000 from their adjusted gross income under the Organ Donation Tax Deduction Act for the year in which the transplantation occurs. "Human organ" applies to all or part of a liver, pancreas, kidney, intestine, lung or bone marrow. The subtracted modification may be claimed for only unreimbursed travel and lodging expenses and lost wages.
For some or many donors, the tax credit doesn't go far enough in offsetting their losses, but they often take it in stride, says Chaya Lipschutz, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based matchmaker for donors and recipients, who launched the website KidneyMitzvah.com in 2009.
Seeking compensation for lost wages "is extremely rare" in her experience. "In all the years of doing this," she recalls, "I only had two people who donated a kidney who needed to get paid for lost wages." She finds it "pretty amazing that mostly all who contact don't ask."
Lipschutz, an Orthodox Jew, has walked in a donor's shoes. In September 2005, at age 48, she donated a kidney to a stranger after coming across an ad in a weekly Jewish newspaper. The ad stated: "Please help save a Jewish life—New Jersey mother of two in dire need of kidney—Whoever saves one life from Israel it is as if they saved an entire nation."
To make matches, Lipschutz posts in various online groups in the United States and Israel. Donors in Israel may receive "refunds" for loss of earnings, travel expenses, psychological treatment, recovery leave, and insurance. They also qualify for visits to national parks and nature reserves without entrance fees, Lipschutz says.
"There has been an attempt to figure out what would constitute fair compensation without the appearance that people are selling their organs or their loved ones' organs."
Kidneys can be procured from healthy living donors or patients who have undergone circulatory or brain death.
"The real dilemma arises with payment for living donation, which would favor poorer individuals to donate who would not necessarily do so," says Dr. Cheryl L. Kunis, a New York-based nephrologist whose practice consists primarily of kidney transplant recipients. "In addition, such payment for living donation has not demonstrated to improve a donor's socioeconomic status globally."
Living kidney donation has the highest success rate. But organs from young and previously healthy individuals who die in accidents or from overdoses, especially in the opioid epidemic, often work just as well as kidneys from cadaveric donors who succumb to trauma, Kunis says.
In these tragic circumstances, she notes that the decision to donate is often left to an individual's grieving family members when a living will isn't available. A payment toward funeral expenses, for instance, could tip their decision in favor of organ donation.
A similar scenario presents when a patient with a beating heart is on the verge of dying, and the family is unsure about consenting to organ donation, says Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor in the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
"There has been an attempt to figure out what would constitute fair compensation," he says, "without the appearance that people are selling their organs or their loved ones' organs."
The overarching concern remains the same: Compensating organ donors could lead to exploitation of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. "What's likely to finally resolve" this bioethics debate, Moreno foresees, "is patient-compatible organs grown in pigs as the basic science of xenotransplants (between species) seems to be progressing."
Cooper, the transplant surgeon at Georgetown, believes more potential donors would come forward if financial barriers weren't an issue. Of the ones who end up giving a part of themselves, with or without reimbursement, "the overwhelming majority look back upon it as an extremely positive experience," he says. After all, "they're lifesavers. They should be celebrated."
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.