For five years, Craig Hopkins knew he needed a new heart. A flu virus had muscled into his body, causing his heart to slowly fail.
On Dec. 5, Hopkins, 52, was put on the official waiting list for a new heart. The good news came on New Year’s Day, when the phone rang after a family gathering.
Later that night, the South Hill man became the first recipient of a heart supplied by LifeCenter Northwest, a non-profit agency overseeing organ donations in the Pacific Northwest.
LifeCenter Northwest, created in a Jan. 1 merger of organ-donating agencies in Spokane and Seattle, will offer more organs to a larger pool of patients.
The streamlined approach eliminates competition between the agencies. Administrators also plan to bolster efforts to educate people about organ donation, recruit donors and lobby for new laws.
“This is the best thing that’s happened to this region, as far as organ donor and transplant services,” said Ed Huppman, LifeCenter Northwest executive director.
“Just by simplifying the process, it speaks one message throughout the entire region.”
Organ procurement agencies, designated by the federal government, coordinate organ donors in an assigned region. LifeCenter now handles one of the largest areas in the country - Alaska, Washington, North Idaho and Montana.
Organs are matched with patients based on such factors as how long the patient’s been waiting, medical compatibility and urgency.
Transplant workers first try to match local organs with local recipients. If no matches are found, the search broadens to the region, and finally to the nation, with pages and pages of people waiting for organs.
The merger means a unified local list for the Pacific Northwest. Now, a Spokane person might be the top candidate for a Seattle heart. An Alaskan might qualify for a Coeur d’Alene kidney.
Before Jan. 1, Spokane’s Sacred Heart Organ Procurement Agency handled donations in Eastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle. Last year, the agency placed more than 80 organs from 24 donors. Fifty people were on the waiting list.
Seattle’s Northwest Organ Procurement Agency handled donations in Western Washington, Alaska, part of Idaho and all of Montana.
Last summer, the federal Health Care Financing Administration established size and performance guidelines for organ agencies. As a result, the Spokane and Seattle agencies were required to consolidate their efforts by the end of the year. It was the only merger ordered in the nation.
The new agency has about 1,100 people on its waiting list. LifeCenter Northwest is predicting about 120 donors this year and about 420 placed organs.
The agency’s 31 board members include doctors, family members and organ recipients from throughout the region. Seven members are from the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene areas. Spokane police Lt. Al Odenthal serves as board president.
“It’s truly community-based,” said Huppman, who previously headed the Sacred Heart agency.
Board member Jan Blair, head counselor at Spokane’s Ferris High School, lost her husband in 1994 after a cerebral hemorrhage. In death, he saved lives, donating five of his organs.
Blair said the merger helps coordinate the region’s transplant system.
“Any time you don’t have people into turf wars, you can have people being proactive,” she said.
Since her husband’s death, Blair has educated high school students and others about the need for organ donors. She’s even become friends with a central Washington man who received one of her husband’s kidneys.
Heart recipient Hopkins stopped by LifeCenter Northwest’s Spokane office Thursday morning to drop off a letter, thanking the donor’s family.
The letter will be passed on through the agency, which maintains the anonymity of both parties unless both agree to be identified.
Hopkins also is grateful to LifeCenter Northwest.
“They’re the ones who are really responsible for there being any donors at all,” he said. “That’s quite a claim.”
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