ADAMS COUNTY (CBS4) – A CBS4 investigation has found people in Colorado are waiting longer for kidneys, the most frequently transplanted organ, than anywhere else in the region.
Every day, 13 people in the U.S. die waiting for a kidney transplant, according to the National Kidney Foundation. In Colorado alone, there are 1,832 kidney patients on the waiting list for a life-saving surgery, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. But, for Coloradans, the wait can be far longer and more excruciating than for transplant hopefuls in neighboring states.
Michelle Stewart, 49, of Adams County, was added to the transplant waiting list last April, after her kidney function decreased to 10 percent of normal.
“I can feel my body slowing down,” she said, “I can feel my body changing.”
For a person with Michelle’s blood type, the average wait time for a kidney transplant in Colorado is about four years.
CBS4 found that four-year wait is twice as long as transplant centers in nearby states. In Utah and Oklahoma, the wait is roughly two years. In Nebraska, the wait is only 10 months.
“I wish I could give my patients a 10-month wait time,” said Dr. Alex Wiseman, who runs the kidney transplant program at the University of Colorado Hospital. “But it really comes down to supply and demand.”
In Colorado, demand outstrips supply for seemingly contradictory reasons. Colorado has an urban population, with a large amount of kidney disease. But Coloradans are also generally healthy, so there are fewer potential donors. In this case, a healthy population means less risk of cardiovascular disease, less risk of stroke, and less risk of brain death.
“Less risk of brain death means fewer donors,” Dr. Wiseman said.
Michelle decided to travel to Utah to get on their list, which carries a dramatically shorter wait time. “Of course Utah was a great candidate because I need a kidney. Who wants to wait five or six years when I can go there in 21 months?”
But there’s a hitch with getting on the list in multiple locations. Patients only have a matter of hours to get to the hospital when an organ becomes available. That’s where Carnegie Mellon University Professor Sridhar Tayur comes in.
“I was just taken aback that there was such a huge disparity,” Tayur said.
So Tayur founded Organ Jet, a company that provides jet service for patients so they can get to another state quickly. Tayur said he was inspired by Apple CEO Steve Jobs who lived in California but received a liver transplant in Tennessee.
“Most of us are not as wealthy as Steve Jobs,” Tayur said. “What happens to the rest of us?”
The private jet service costs about $10,000 per trip. According to Tayur, that’s a price tag that people in the upper middle class may be willing and able to pay.
“So if you are a software engineer working in Washington, D.C., you are not Steve Jobs. But you could potentially afford to get from D.C. to Pittsburgh.”
Software developer Irena Bucci signed up for Organ Jet and was listed at eight different transplant centers across the country. The mother of two was facing a five- or six-year wait for a kidney in Washington, D.C., but ended up getting a kidney after two years in Pittsburgh.
“It absolutely saved my life,” said Bucci who went on to develop a website, http://www.txmultilisting.com , to help other patients find centers with shorter wait times.
So far, Tayur says about 25 people have used his jet service. He is now trying to convince insurance companies to cover the cost of an Organ Jet flight. He says the jet will cost a lot less in the long run than a lifetime of dialysis.
For Michelle Stewart, a transplant can’t come soon enough. Doctors tell her she will need dialysis within a year.
“It scares me that I will have to rely on a machine to clean my blood,” she says. “It is very important and time matters.”
But time isn’t the only consideration for Michelle. The relationship between patient and doctor is also important. Michelle has seen the same doctor for 36 years and says she would prefer to stay at home in Colorado for her surgery.
“Best-case scenario is that I find a living donor,” she said.
There is no wait time for living organ donations. But for now, Michelle waits, with family members unable to donate, “I’m hoping an angel will come forward and is willing to donate to me and matches me, of course.”
The American Transplant Foundation provides mentors and services for people going through the organ donation process. For more information, visit www.americantransplantfoundation.org.