Today, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called for a review of the policy determining how transplantable lungs are allocated to those on waiting lists for donor lungs. You can read about it and the case of 10 year old Sarah Murnaghan who has end-stage cystic fibrosis in this CBS news story from today.
The tragedy is not just that this young girl is likely to die because there are no lungs allocated for those her age, and that is surely tragic enough, but that there are thousands dying every year because of a shortage of donor organs. With advances in transplantation, especially in anti-rejection medications, more and more people seek donor organs. The problem is that there has not been a corresponding increase in donor organs supplied. One reason for this is that there is nothing prodding potential donor families to give those organs. We will see in our chapter on price controls how attempts to keep prices down with legal controls cause shortages, which is the case with transplanted organs. This was something I pointed out in this opinion-editorial essay or column I wrote in 1999 for the Bayou Business Review, “Trading in kidneys and the kindness of strangers.” At the end of that op-ed essay are partial lyrics to a John Prine song, “Please don’t bury me,” that I will repeat here:
Please don’t bury me down in the cold, cold ground
No, I’d ‘druther have ‘em cut me up and pass me all around
Throw my brains in a hurricane
And the blind can have my eyes
And the deaf can take both of my ears
If they don’t mind the size.
If you find these lyrics offensive because Prine approached the problem with some humor, I apologize in advance. However, please know that both Prine and I take this problem to be serious. Someone dying needlessly is always serious. That said, it helps to understand that forcing the market in donor organs to be completely charitable and preventing the donor families from receiving something for the organ has something to do with organ shortages. All we can do now before rules are changed is to sign donor cards.