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Gift of life, hard to give

(Xinhua)

09:36, April 26, 2012

JINAN, April 19 (Xinhua) -- The parents of a 23-year-old woman dying from a brain hemorrhage in east China rescinded their decision to donate her organs at the last minute, having arranged for a "ghost marriage" for the unwed woman.

The superstitious rite of marrying off the dead devastated the month-long efforts of Liu Hong, one of China's first "organ donation coordinators" -- a profession still unheard of for many Chinese.

But for Liu, such failures are common.

Liu, a veteran nurse at the Second Hospital affiliated with Shandong University in Jinan, capital of Shandong, is working with some 600 organ donation coordinators nationwide to help revamp China's organ transplant system, which has traditionally relied on death row inmates and organ traffickers as sources of organ transplants.

But their campaign to help build a national organ donation system, starting in July last year, has been anything but easy.

NEW PROFESSION, TOUGH JOB

Every year, an estimated 1.5 million patients in China are in dire need of organ transplants, while only 10,000 receive them, according to figures published by the Ministry of Health.

The discrepancy between supply and demand has forced China to take organs from death row inmates, a practice that health officials said would be abolished within the next five years after a national donation system takes shape.

The supply-demand gap has also spawned a black market. The government outlawed organ trafficking five years ago, but sporadic media reports show that an underground network profiting from the country's organ shortage still exists.

In a bid to ease the imbalance between organ supply and demand, the Ministry of Health and the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC) launched a pilot organ donation program in 16 megacities and provinces in 2010.

The RCSC later trained hundreds of "organ donation coordinators," mostly RCSC employees and medical staff, to help carry out the program.

Liu, who worked for two decades as a nurse, said she had never heard of the profession until she underwent a training course -- the first of its kind ever held in China -- in July 2010.

As an organ donation coordinator, she searches for potential donors. The ideal donor is someone who is dying but still has healthy organs, preferably between the ages of 5 and 60.

Every morning, Liu goes through the hospital's list of critical patients. She asks for doctors' evaluations to see if their patients' organs are in good condition before making a shortlist of potential donors.

The screening is difficult. According to clinical statistics in the United States, only one percent of deceased donors are likely to possess organs healthy enough for transplantation, while four to five percent are fit for body tissue, such as cornea, transplants only.

However, the hardest part of Liu's job often comes after a potential donor is shortlisted.

"At the beginning, I felt it was just impossible to ask. There is a traditional Chinese belief stating that the wholeness of the body brings peace to the soul. But I had to tough it out, because I remember how my patients died waiting for organs that never came," Liu said.

Most of the time, doctors help introduce Liu to the critical patients' next of kin, at which time she broaches the subject by discussing their relative's illness.

In a recent case, a high school boy was declared to be brain dead after a car accident. His grieving parents said they would prefer for the boy to be euthanize, rather than watch him suffer, although the practice is illegal in China.

The boy's father, a regular blood donor, considered donating his organs but feared it would worsen the mother's grief.

Liu stepped in at that time. She went to the grief-stricken mother for a long talk. When the mother, 42, described her love for her son between sobs, Liu could barely hold back her own tears.

"But his life could be extended in some sense: he could live on in other people and his eyes can still see you. Would that comfort you?" Liu asked the weeping mother.

The mother turned her down. "I can say these same words to comfort other people, but when it happens to me, I just cannot accept the cruel facts," she said.

Liu approached 10 families that same year, but did not reach a single deal.

In fact, the trial program found only nine donors across Shandong Province, which has a population of over 90 million.

Nationwide, the program prompted the donation of 546 organs by 207 donors.

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