In this National Donate Life Month of April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced "historic levels" of New Yorkers are now registered as organ donors. Getting the credit for the recent growth spurt is an executive order signed in 2017 that allows New Yorkers to register when applying for government benefits, licenses and other services.
Dr. Rocco Venuto agrees the state's coordinated effort has resulted in "a sudden doubling" of people becoming registered organ donors. Venuto, who has been with the Renal Transplantation Program at Erie County Medical Center since 1977 -- nearly its beginning -- suspects many of those new people live downstate and that the state's effort is helping close the gap with Western New Yorkers, who have traditionally led the state in registered donors. However even locally, he said, there has been a "dramatic increase" and that is helping increase the number of organs actually donated.
"I think the big thing this is doing is plowing the fields for the future," Venuto said. "With the increase in the number of people who have signed cards, this has made it very much easier for personnel who approach families at these tragic times to actually talk to them, since the conversation has been started by the potential donor in the act of signing that card. So this is going to have a long-term impact if the effort is sustained."
The governor this week announced more than 5 million people are now enrolled on the state's Donate Life Registry.
Venuto said ECMC also now leads the United States with the shortest wait time for a kidney. He said the medical center's "medium-size program" transplanted 138 kidneys donated locally and nationally in 2017 "without decreasing quality." ECMC also transplants pancreases, but Venuto said those are much more "challenging," so transplants have been limited to locally donated organs.
Although the number of registered donors in the state has doubled, Venuto said efforts have not yet turned into a doubling of organs actually donated. For that, he said "another huge effort" is needed: a focus on living donations. Venuto estimated New York would have to "roughly double" the number of live donors to sustain the recent growth.
"The big thing that's important is, it's clear that if you're going to sustain a large transplant program in this day in age, it's not only the deceased donor. We need to really focus on living donation, as well," he said. "We certainly have the up-to-date modalities of recovering the organs by laparoscopic technique and obviously we have very good results there, but if we're going to sustain a large program -- if anybody's going to sustain a large program, not just ECMC, anybody -- you're going to have to have more live kidney donations from interested friends and family members or even those altruistic individuals."
Overall, he said, all efforts combined are making conversations about organ donation more "the community norm" and that, in itself, is helping increase the number of both registered donors and organs donated.
"It's very heartening to hear the stories of families who have been donors, to hear the benefits," Venuto said. "In Western New York, for example, we have a program that educates children in the schools. That's the kind of thing you need to do. The education has to start early and continue."
Venuto would like organ donation to be "around the dinner table conversation at all households at some time, but it doesn't occur often enough."