As an intensive care unit nurse, Lenny Achan did everything he could to keep his critically ill patients alive.
When one of them passed away, he'd shift his focus to the surviving patients.
Achan, who currently leads the organization that oversees organ donations in the region, said he now knows that was a missed opportunity.
WHAT TO KNOW
Long Island organ and tissue donations rose last year above pre-pandemic levels.
It was driven in part by growing public awareness, expanded ability to use organs once deemed medically unviable and changes at the once-struggling local organ procurement organization, local doctors said.
There were 42,887 organ transplants performed in the U.S. in 2022, an annual record.
“Nobody said, ‘Hey Lenny, that person could be a donor and could save eight people’s lives,'” Achan, a Bellmore resident, said during a recent interview. “The truth is every single person in a hospital has the power to influence donation.”
Long Island organ and tissue donations rose last year above pre-pandemic levels, driven in part by growing public awareness, expanded ability to use organs once deemed medically unviable, more organs available because of the national increase in drug overdoses and suicides, and changes at the once-struggling local organ procurement organization, local doctors said.
Achan, entering his second year as CEO at LiveOnNY, said the nonprofit plans to continue an aggressive push for more donors and better education of the public and health care workers about organ donation.
The number of deceased donors on Long Island increased more than 18% between 2021 and 2022, while tissue donations, which include skin, corneas, heart valves and ligaments, increased more than 45%.
Experts believe the increase in donors and other positive indicators could mark a turnaround for New York, which has traditionally lagged other states in organ donors, and people signed up for the organ donation registry.
LiveOnNY — which covers Long Island, New York City, Westchester County and the lower Hudson Valley — is one of four organ procurement organizations in the state. The nonprofits are certified by the federal government to work on recovering organs from deceased donors, providing support to donor families and engaging in professional and public education about organ donation.
Local transplant doctors said a renewed focus by LiveOnNY has helped.
"With new leadership, there's new energy. I think it's made a tremendous difference in how things function. But I think there's just a national awareness," said Dr. Frank Darras, medical director of Transplantation Services at Stony Brook Medicine, who also sits on the board of LiveOnNY. "This is giving us more opportunity to get people transplanted who are on the waiting list."
There were 42,887 organ transplants performed in the U.S. in 2022, an annual record, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the nonprofit that runs the nation’s transplant system through a contract with the federal government.
But the need is staggering. More than 104,000 people across the U.S. are waiting for organ transplants, including more than 8,100 in New York, according to federal statistics. The majority of those, more than 88,000, are waiting on kidneys followed by more than 10,600 waiting for livers.
Nationally, there were 21,370 live and deceased organ donors in 2022, up from 20,403 in 2021 and 18,313 in 2020, which was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 19,259 in 2019.
One reason for increased donations is that regulations have been changed to allow organs deemed unusable in the past, such as from a person who had hepatitis C, to be used.
In addition, the rise in drug overdoses and suicides has led to more organs being available for donations, Darras said.
People have also been motivated by donors' families and grateful recipients who have shared their stories.
Kristina Moon, the widow of FDNY Firefighter William P. Moon II of Islip, whose donated organs saved five people, said the positive feedback has been heartening.
Moon, 47, died after falling 20 feet while preparing for a training drill at his Brooklyn firehouse on Dec. 12.
People show her their driver’s licenses, which mark them as organ donors. Others have posted about becoming organ donors on Billy Moon’s social media pages, saying they were influenced by his example.
“It’s created a movement of awareness and to spread that message of continuing to help other people,” she said, noting that Moon made it clear years ago he wanted to be an organ donor.
“The fact that he may not be here physically but he is still here in some way helping others has really brought some peace to our family,” she said.
LiveOnNY has faced criticism in previous years from patient advocates and federal regulators who said they weren’t doing enough to facilitate organ donations. That poor performance almost led the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to pull the organization’s certification in 2014 and again in 2018. Achan, who took over in late 2021, noted that LiveOnNY is now certified until 2027.
Experts said New York’s struggle to get organ donors is multilayered. Many myths about organ donation persist, such as the unfounded fear that critically injured donors will receive less care in the hospital.
In addition, some people may mistakenly believe their religion forbids organ donation and there may be cultural taboos around the issue.
Creating strong partnerships with hospital staff has also been a challenge over the years but one Achan said he is qualified to address with decades as both a nurse and health care administrator.
Dr. Nabil N. Dagher, director of the Northwell Health Transplant Center, said LiveOnNY has made strong efforts to educate staff at both large and small hospitals about organ donation.
“They are getting out there but it can take years for that kind of change,” Dagher said. “I don’t think people realize how many patients are struggling with end-organ failure in our communities.”
Corey Mayes of Ronkonkoma was one of them.
'The perfect gift'
Kidney failure came quickly for the 43-year-old truck driver, who is also diabetic. An infection led him to a course of antibiotics in April 2018. By the summer he was on dialysis, a condition caused by the antibiotics and was on the waiting list for a donated kidney.
“My kidney was dying rapidly,” he said, saying the condition left him depressed, sluggish and weak.
“I never stopped working though,” he said.
During the four years he waited for a kidney, both his twin brother and friend were found to be a match. Even though they were willing to donate, health issues prevented them from being approved as living donors.
Then in the summer of 2022 the call came that a kidney was available and it was a match. Dr. Darras performed his transplant surgery at Stony Brook University Hospital in August.
“I was very, very excited,” Mayes said. “I thought I had many, many years before I even would get a phone call.”
While more than 7 million New Yorkers are on an organ donation registry, most of the organ donations LiveOnNY handles come from people who have not registered.
Most of the time, that means approaching heartbroken families as they gather around a loved one being kept alive by a ventilator and explaining how donating their organs can save lives. Achan said 80% of donations in the region come from unregistered donors.
Because of better testing, donors that may have been previously turned down because of high risk activities are now able to be transplanted successfully, transplant surgeons said.
For example, Dagher pointed out that transplants using organs infected with hepatitis C can be done safely.
“Shortly after the operation, we treat the hepatitis C and cure the patient,” he said. “Now that person has a nice healthy organ they would not have gotten just a few years ago.”
Mayes is now back at work, still sore from the surgery but grateful for the second chance he received from an anonymous deceased donor. His wife and daughter are happily planning vacations that had been delayed for years.
“When you donate, a part of you does live on,” Mayes said. “You just gave somebody the perfect gift that nobody else could give them.”