The Gift of a Healthy Life

The second academic semester kicked off on January 26 with Wellness Week, Middlesex’s annual program of events, workshops, and activities designed to introduce new and proactive ways for students to support their physical and mental health. From all-school assemblies to small group gatherings, the daily offerings varied widely, with some providing opportunities for quiet reflection, while others were more active and social in nature. Still others were more service-oriented, such as the blood drive on February 1 that netted 35 pints for the MGH Bloodmobile.

Just the day before this event, the community had learned about another pressing medical need – for organ donations – during an assembly presentation given by Middlesex parent Alexandra Glazier, the president and CEO of New England Donor Services (NEDS). Ms. Glazier, who is also an assistant professor of the practice of health services, policy, and practice at Brown University, clearly explained the complexities involved in organ donation, calling it “one of the most amazing acts of kindness.”

With an interactive presentation that allowed audience members to answer projected questions using their smartphones, Ms. Glazier could readily confirm or correct popular perceptions about organ donations, providing substantiating statistics and information. In this way, students learned that while many people view organ donation positively, a gap remains between the number of organs available for transplant and those who need them. Every 10 minutes, another person is added to a waiting list for an organ transplant; currently, 105,000 people are on such lists in the United States alone. And though registered organ donors in the U.S. comprise more than half of the adult population, Ms. Glazier noted, “The opportunity is really small to get viable organs,” since donors must be in a hospital, on a ventilator, and otherwise free of transmissible diseases.

Whenever and wherever the situation arises, a potential donor must be screened by a regional Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) like NEDS, which specifically coordinates organ and tissue donation in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, the eastern counties of Vermont, and Bermuda. Working with a prioritized list of possible recipients, NEDS evaluates and allocates the viable organs, checking for the compatibility of blood type, antibodies, and other factors. Critically, surgeons must be available to undertake the necessary operations, and organs must be delivered to recipients within a certain window of time. “All of this has to happen 24/7,” Ms. Glazier emphasized.

While focusing on two topics selected by the audience – innovations in the field and allocation policy – Ms. Glazier mentioned the development of new equipment that can preserve organs longer outside the body. In providing more time to find appropriate recipients and deliver viable organs, such technology could improve the chances of all those on transplant waiting lists. “Our system still has a lot of work to do, but we have a lot to celebrate,” she said. “The U.S. is the first country in the world to reach one million transplants.”

Accompanying Ms. Glazier was Ben Fleishman, a Concord Academy junior who shared his own transplant story. As Ben related, he was stricken with a rare liver disease as a newborn and survived thanks to an early surgical procedure – though it was clear even then that he would eventually need a new liver. In good health when he was placed on a waitlist at age 11, he was fortunate to have successful transplant surgery as a seventh grader.

“I’m here through the miracles of modern medicine,” Ben said, “but the sad reality is that I have a liver because someone died.” Grateful for that generous gift of life, he encouraged others to consider registering as organ donors, which can be easily done online or through a local Registry of Motor Vehicles. “Something as simple as this can have a dramatic impact,” he stated, “not just on eight others but on all those who love them.”