In the Finger Lakes region, more than 750 people are waiting for an organ transplant

Today is National Donate Life Blue and Green Day, raising awareness about organ donation. There are currently about 115,000 Americans waiting for an organ transplant. In the Finger Lakes region, there are 771 people waiting.

New York state historically has some of the nation’s highest wait times for transplantation. According to Dr. Leway Chen, medical director of UR Medicine’s Advanced Heart Failure Program, New York has an aging population in need of advanced therapies like transplants, yet much of the younger population is moving away, reducing the donor pool. Additionally, the state’s safety regulations — like seat belt and helmet laws — are leading to fewer healthy people dying. With fewer dying, fewer organs are being donated for transplantation.

The national average for registered organ donors is 54 percent of the population over age 16. In New York state that average is 32 percent. The Finger Lakes region fares better at 40 percent.

Amy James, community education manager at Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network (FLDRN), stated that several different campaigns are responsible for the higher rate of registered donors in the area. FLDRN has partnered with the organization Causewave Community Partners to promote the Pass Life On initiative and increase media presence. FLDRN has also worked with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Monroe, Ontario, Cayuga and Jefferson counties to register people.

One of the area’s leading advocates for organ donation is weather anchor Scott Hetsko, who received a heart transplant in 2015. James credits him with some of the recent increases in register organ donors.

Several other factors have increased donor registrations throughout the state. Lauren’s Law, recently made permanent by Governor Andrew Cuomo, mandates that the Department of Motor Vehicles ask about donation preference on transaction forms. As of Feb. 14, 2017, 16- and 17-year-olds may now register as donors without parents’ consent.

Another factor is that people may now register online at www.PassLifeOn.org. James said the new online registry takes about two minutes to complete.

Meanwhile, Chen noted that the opioid epidemic has increased the deceased donor pool. Still, doctors feel that waiting times are too long and they are never transplanting patients as quickly as preferred. In cardiology this forces medical providers to use artificial heart technology to bridge patients to transplant.

Such was the case for Tom Barbera, who received a heart transplant on Oct. 30, 2017. Having been diagnosed with heart failure, Barbera had his heart removed and a Total Artificial Heart implanted for 524 days before being transplanted.

As a small business owner, it was hard for Barbera to not participate in his own life. He spent 14 months in the hospital as the world went on around him. “You’re experiencing death but you’re alive.”

Now transplanted, Barbera feels like he has his life and freedom back. He has been able to return to work and take his daughter on Sunday hikes in Prattsburgh. He looks forward to being well enough for turkey season for the first time in three years this May.

The consensus between patients, doctors and those working in the field is that everyone would like to see more people transplanted in the future. “We would like all people to be donors,” Chen stated, noting that people should discuss their wishes with family.

James noted that age or health should not deter people from registering as an organ donor.

“Enrolling is simply making a wish — if I can, I want to,” she said.

Organ donation is considered the gift of life by those who receive it. When asked what he’d say to a person considering registering as an organ donor, Barbera simply said, “You’re a hero … you’d be a hero.”

Coming in this Sunday's Daily Messenger:

A young Canandaigua woman was recently given a second chance at life through a lung donation