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."
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."