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Wyoming Ranks Among The Top For Residents Signed Up For Organ Donation

Donor Alliance

National Donate Life Month just wrapped up. Every April, advocates celebrate and recognize organ, eye and tissue donation, something that anyone can sign up to do at the time of their death. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with Donor Alliance's Wyoming Community Relations Coordinator Ryea' O'Neill.  

Ryea' O'Neill: So Donor Alliance is the organ procurement organization that services the area of Colorado and most of Wyoming. So what we do is when someone has said yes to organize tissue donation, and they pass away, we then do the recovery. So we recover those organs, eye and or tissue and for the eye, its cornea tissue. We recover those and then facilitate the transportation of those organizing tissues to transplant centers and/or tissue processors.

Catherine Wheeler: Colorado's a big state, lots of major medical facilities. But in Wyoming, are there a lot of hospitals that do organ transplants?

RO: In Wyoming, we have none.

CW: Okay, so you would have to travel out of state?

RO: Yes, I would say as much as probably 75 percent of the people in Wyoming that end up getting listed, they get listed at a center in Denver. Just in the metro Denver area, there's four transplant centers. We just don't have the population to support one.

CW: Yeah, and since you all manage the donor registry, how many people in Wyoming or what kind of percentage are registered organ donors?

RO: In Wyoming, 63 percent of us say yes to organ, eye and tissue donation. And that actually puts Wyoming in about the top five in the nation.

CW: What are some of the biggest myths there are out there or concerns that aren't true about organ donation?

RO: The number one thing that I hear in Wyoming is I'm too old, or I'm too sick. And we always educate people that you're never too old, and you're never too sick. As a matter of fact, some of the oldest donors that we've had in our region are up in the hundreds of years of age. That's amazing that they're still able to be tissue donors and/or cornea donors. And so we really encourage people: don't rule yourself out. Please let those medical professionals make that decision at the time of your death. You can always help by saying yes and keeping yourself on that donor registry every time you go to driver services.

CW: Yeah, because it doesn't mean even everything's going to get used or that it will like it. There's a lot of factors that go into it.

RO: One thing that people need to keep in the back of their mind is, you hear about all these amazing scientific and healthcare advances that happen over the years of your life. You may not be aware of the ones that enable you to be a donor. We have people that have diabetes, for example. And some people think if they have an illness or a disease, that they cannot be a donor, but they still can. Even some people with cancer can still be a donor. And so we want them to just not rule themself out. Don't believe in those myths. Learn the facts and all of those, they can look at DonateLifewyoming.org, and they can learn the facts of donation and keep themself on that registry.

CW: Tell me a little bit about how the education component of this got started and why it happens really.

RO: By state statute, we're tasked with educating the public about donation. And really what it means when people say yes. And so over the years, we've done a lot of education to driver services in Wyoming. So you'll know when you go in and you renew your license, you see our marketing materials, you see educational brochures, we also train the staff there. And over time we came to realize that mom and dad and child were going in to get their permits at 15 in Wyoming, and the kid would go, "Whoa, what is this question?" And then they'd look at mom and dad and go, "Ah, what do I do?" And mom and dad would go, "Oh, just mark no, we'll talk about it later." Because no parent wants to talk about or think about even their child passing away. I'm a parent, and I get that. Absolutely. And so that definitely is not the place where that conversation should take place. But we knew that we found out through a lot of feedback from the public and also the staff there, that's what was happening. And so we devised this program that we can do for free in the schools in Colorado and Wyoming. If the teachers invite us in, and we teach the kids the science behind it. So when they go, they know what that question means what they're being asked, and it really educates them so they can make an informed decision with mom and dad as well.

CW: Do you think that since you started doing education in schools this way have you seen either an uptick in donors or maybe people being more vocal about doing this?

RO: Over about the past five years, we've gone from 58 percent to 63 percent. We definitely attribute that not just to the transplantation science, that's obviously a huge impact on that donor designation rate, but also our events in the public, our community education, outreach that we do social media is a huge role. But all of that comes down to you're getting people talking, they're learning about organ and tissue donation so that they can answer that question with an informed decision.

Have questions about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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