Patients, donated organs frequently leaving Nevada - FOX5 Vegas - KVVU

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Patients, donated organs frequently leaving Nevada

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LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -

Eighteen people in the United States die every day waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant, some of them right here in Nevada. Our state, which only offers kidney transplants, is falling behind other states, including West Virginia.

“Now I just get out and do things I would normally have never of done, and even last night at 8, I went out to the grocery store. Simple things like that I couldn't do,” kidney transplant recipient Manuel Gallegos said.

Gallegos is thankful to be alive and is now living life to the fullest. His life changed when he received a lifesaving kidney transplant in May after being on the recipient list for a year. His kidneys began to fail about six years ago. He was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), which caused scaring on his kidneys.

"[It's] something rare. Pretty much it looks like a grenade blew up in your kidneys,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos had his surgery done at University Medical Center's Center for Transplantation, which is the only kidney transplant center in Nevada. Although he now has his health back, his life isn't back to normal.

"You have to do labs twice a week and you have to go to clinic once a week, and what they want to do is make sure your anti-rejection meds - that your body is working with them and that your kidney functions are fine.” Gallegos said.

According to UMC Medical Director of Transplantation Dr. John Ham, Gallegos is one of the lucky ones who was able to receive his care locally. Many Nevadans have to travel hundreds of miles and relocate for months to receive transplantation of an organ other than a kidney, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. This can be a huge burden and even cause someone to not receive the gift of life.

"It requires a lot of support and time at the transplant center. It costs a lot of money to do that as you can imagine - traveling, housing and food -and then if there are complications, you have to stay even longer, so really it is a disadvantage for people to have to travel far away,” Ham said.

UMC's transplant center was temporarily shut down in 2008 after getting its certification pulled because its death rate was more than 50 percent higher than expected. After hurried corrective measures the program was fully recertified less than eight months later. Since then, the program has been a great success, according to Ham, and referrals are up 40 percent in the last year.

"Our patient graph survival is over 98 percent, 96 to 98 percent, and where it needs to be, and it is as expected,” Ham said.

Now that the transplant center is a success, surgeons are performing about 60 kidney transplants a year, most of them on locals. Ham said it's time to improve the system here in Nevada and expand.

"Our best in a 12-month period is about 70. We expect to do about 100 to 120, and we expect our list size to double from what it is right now, a little over 100,” Ham said.

Other states and cities of our size have multi-transplantation centers, meaning they offer lung, heart, and liver transplants. Nevada is falling behind in this department and Ham hopes that will soon change.

"We haven't really looked at a higher level of care as an important thing in this valley. We are pretty good at hospital care. We have great community hospitals here, but if you really need advanced care it's not the greatest place to be,” Ham said.

Ham said the biggest obstacle for Nevada to get a center like this is funding. A multi-transplantation center would cost about $10 million per organ involved, according to Ham. He said a transplant center usually pays for itself in about a year.

"Once it's going it makes money for every hospital that has it, so as a business plan it's a good business plan, but we just haven't had the will to put the money forward that needs to come to start the program,” Ham said.

Joseph Ferreira, president of Nevada Donor Network, said there are currently about 580 Nevadans on the list for a transplant of some kind. He said because Nevada doesn't offer anything other than kidney transplants, patients are not only going outside of state lines and investing millions into other economies, but so are the organs that are procured here.

"How fair is that really, to have this great donor source of Nevadans who are giving and then have them exported to other states? Even though they are helping people, it would be great to have them stay here for Nevadans,” Ferreira said.

The Nevada Donor Network has grown significantly over the years and covers 80 percent of the state, which includes about 2.2 million people. Last year, the organization received donations from 105 donors, most of them coming from deceased persons. If someone isn't a registered donor, it's up to that person's family to make the decision to donate. Robert Gilbreath knows the choice is a hard one to make when dealing with tragedy, but he said it's life-changing.

"It softens the blow a little bit. It's still really hard to wrap my head around. You know, you still expect to see him walk in the door. I still hear his goofy laugh in my head,” Gilbreath said.

Gilbreath and his family donated his son Joshua's organs after he passed away in 2011 at the age of 22. He loved rock music and working with his dad. Both of Joshua's kidneys, his liver and tissue were used to help save lives.

"We felt that he was a giving soul in life, so why not? Why just let his life go to waste, so to say?” Gilbreath said.

Before making the tough decision to donate his son's organs, Gilbreath never considered becoming an organ donor. He's now tackling life with a new outlook.

"Now, unfortunately, because of this, it's brought more awareness to me and how serious it really is, that some people really are fighting for their lives waiting for this,” Gilbreath said.

In other states, such as California, average wait times are often between six and eight years. In Nevada, it's about a year and a half. Ham said that wait times would get longer in the state if we were to become more advanced because more people would seek transplants in Nevada.

One organ donor can help save up to eight lives and help heal more than 50 people. For more information on the Nevada Donor Network and how to become an organ donor, click here

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