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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Retrieval room at medical examiner’s office could increase tissue donations

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 10, 2022

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Veena Singh stands in the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office tissue room Monday. Singh is working to get a site use agreement finalized so that tissue donation agencies can do retrieval in house.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Veena Singh stands in the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office tissue room Monday. Singh is working to get a site use agreement finalized so that tissue donation agencies can do retrieval in house. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A new room at the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office could significantly increase the number of tissue donations in the region, both the Chief Medical Examiner and tissue banks say.

The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office built in 2020 is home to state-of-the-art equipment, including a room built specifically for tissue retrieval.

The new room will allow the quick and efficient retrieval of corneas, ligaments, skin, heart valves, bone and other tissues, that will be transplanted into awaiting patients, often saving their lives.

In the last year and a half the room hasn’t been put to its intended use. That’s something Dr. Veena Singh, chief medical examiner, hopes to change soon.

“The room was sitting there idle,” Singh said. “It just seemed like a good way to streamline the collaboration.”

Currently, tissue banks have to identify potential donors then contact their families to discuss donation. After receiving permission to complete the retrieval, they coordinate with the medical examiner’s office and another facility, often a hospital, to rent a space to conduct the procedure.

This can take time. In order for tissue to be viable for donation, the collection needs to occur within 24 hours of the donor’s death.

“The sooner we can recover tissue from an individual the more viable the tissue is for transplant,” said Mike Meyer, regional development manager with SightLife, an eye bank that does cornea retrieval.

“All of those logistics can sometimes push them out of that 24-hour timeline,” said Jenna Pringle with LifeCenter NorthWest, a tissue bank. “It’s very rare that it (retrieval) even happens.”

Often tissue donors are rejected simply because retrieval isn’t logistically possible, Pringle said.

“It’s always sad for us to be able to say we won’t be able to fulfill your loved ones’ wishes,” Pringle said.

Especially at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, finding operating room space to rent for the procedures, which can take hours, was extremely difficult, Pringle said.

Having a room at the medical examiner’s office to do the retrivals would significantly increase the number of feasible donors, Pringle and Meyer said.

The medical examiner’s office, which has jurisdiction for every death that doesn’t occur under medical supervision, is the prime place for donors.

“A lot of our cases, they’re not older people who have been sick for a long time,” Singh said. “They’re younger, healthy people who died by violent means and would be eligible for tissue donation.”

The process of donation can also give families of the donor a large support system, Singh said.

Agencies such as LifeCenter Northwest offer a multitude of supports for grief counseling to support groups, Pringle said.

“I’ve never had a family come back and say I wish I had not donated,” Pringle said. “Knowing that something positive came out of this loss helped them through the grieving process.”

Last month the Spokane County Commissioners signaled their support for Singh to pursue a site use agreement with tissue banks and collection centers in the area.

“It’s a good thing for the community,” said Commissioner Mary Kuney.

Currently, the county’s legal department is working to hammer out the details of the agreement, which Singh hopes will become official early this year.

“It’s an altruistic thing when people donate tissue and if we can enhance that by letting them utilize our facility then all the better,” Singh said.

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