Let’s Fire UNOS And Start All Over Again

Washington Post, March 22, 2008 — A third of patients on transplant list not eligible  

Today we learned from the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm) that UNOS, (the private not for profit company that holds the government contract to coordinate organ donation and organ transplants), is playing games with the wait list.  The Post says that a third of the patients on the list are not eligible for transplants and questions whether those people should be on the list.  UNOS says, “Many patients are inactive for only short periods because of temporary complications or other issues that are often resolved.”

The point here is that UNOS has been caught fudging the numbers. If UNOS fudged the numbers what else have they fudged?  Or, what else has UNOS lied to us about?  I believe that this is just another piece of the puzzle that shows UNOS can’t be trusted?  Even former UNOS board members don’t trust the organization.  Included in the Washington Post story is this interesting tidbit: “The wait list is dishonest,” said Donna L. Luebke, a nurse who said she was rebuked by UNOS officials when she complained about the list near the end of the three years she served on the organization’s board of directors. “The public deserves to know the true numbers.”   

Readers please don’t be misled by this story.  No matter how you torture the numbers they will still confess to the fact that the gap between available organs and the people who need them is wide and growing and that’s because of UNOS’ failure to adopt policies that would significantly increase organ donation.  Let me offer you an example of how UNOS has approached the entire organ donation effort. 

If you were a member of a tribe that waved sheets in the air to prevent thunderstorms, how many times would you have to get drenched and hit by lightning before you’d think, “I’m all wet and scorched again, maybe we had better find a better solution.” My guess is no more than twice. Well, our friendly sheet wavers at UNOS are keeping the softer side of Sears in business.  They’ve been buying all of Sears’ sheets since 1984.  Anytime anyone complains that the current organ donation system is ineffective, UNOS sends its heavy thinkers out to wave a new batch of sheets while simultaneously issuing a Press Release that says, “See, we’re on top of it, we’re taking action.  We have a greater thread count in the sheets this year.”   “Oh,” our leaders say, “We can see that you are trying really hard.  Maybe bigger sheets will work better next year, let’s renew your contract and give you even more money” and almost immediately thousands of sewing machines in Guatemala and China begin to hum as Sears happily seeks to fulfill the latest UNOS order for super large sheets — this years model has handles.  

In the meantime the gap between the number of people who need organs and the number of available organs continues to increase and the number of people who die waiting for an organ gets ever larger — every year, despite the size of the sheets, the thread count, the number of people waving them and the new 2008 handles. 

For twenty-four years UNOS has continued the same disastrous organ donation policy while absolutely refusing to try any other approach to solve the problem.  They won’t even conduct a simple, controlled trial in small section of a small city.  They just hold bioethics meetings so they can develop grounds on which to reject everything that doesn’t include a sheet.  Almost every option suggested to them is “unethical, undoable, or too expensive.”  Besides, what would they do with all their sheets?  (I’m sure that my hometown of Chisholm, Minnesota (population under 5,000) would welcome a trial in any section of town.  Lakeview would be good, it’s across the lake and a little isolated from the city.  Let me warn you, though, these hard working iron miners are too smart to fall for the sheet trick.) 

Oh glorious leaders of UNOS, ye without the courage to change or the blessing of vision (they don’t even have the blessing of hindsight), heed the words of Mark Twain, “Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”  Or as George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”  Indeed, we have been subjected for twenty-four long years to not only petrified opinion but also to cowardice, fear of change and indifference to human suffering.  100,000 have died while the people in charge of organ donation keep waving sheets in the air.

Listen to me now UNOS — Listen to me!!!  I was on the transplant list and was one of the few lucky ones to get an organ (heart).  I know first hand what the desperation is like — what it is like to be chair bound — unable to function.  I know what it is like to pray each night that I will wake up in the morning.  I know what it is like to be on 22 medications every day, medications that cost as much as $50-100 a pill and more.  And – finally, I know what it feels like to be dying while the organization that is supposed to help refuses to seriously consider any method other than their failed “altruistic” approach to organ donation.  Have you no compassion?  How can you watch 100,000 people die and still wave your damned sheets?  When will you show us that you care? 

We hear your message UNOS, it is quite simple, “There are too many on the list and not enough organs, so if you are on the list you are probably going to die.”  What a great public relations program that is. Listed people may not have a lot of clout but we do have some intelligence and we are not fooled by your nonsense.  We see the numbers —over two million people die every year in the U.S. and last year there were only 8,024 deceased donors.  Doesn’t that fact give you bureaucrats a clue?  It’s bad enough that your efforts are inadequate but because of your intransigence OPOs, state legislatures, and others who want to do the right thing are hamstrung by policies that offer them little more than a new supply of the latest model sheets.  You are telling them that you don’t want real help, you only want to preserve your petrified plan while telling us that we are going to die and you aren’t going to do anything about it. 

Why do you steadfastly support a system that has been proven ineffective twenty-four times, people are dying and I, for one, hold you UNOS, responsible.  You know the system doesn’t work, you know that more and more people die each year, you know that the list of donors doesn’t come close to matching the number of people who need organs and yet you refuse to try anything new.  In my book that is reckless negligence.  The people at UNOS are afraid to admit they were and are wrong about how to increase organ donation.  They fit Einstein’s definition of insanity better than any group of people I’ve known.  Akhenaton(an Egyptian pharoh (1380-1362 BC), the predecessor of Tutankamen, and husband of Nefertiti) said, “True wisdom is less presuming than folly. The wise man doubteth often, and changeth his mind; the fool is obstinate, and doubteth not; he knoweth all things but his own ignorance.”  I submit that the people who make organ donation policy fall into the category of the “obstinate fool.” 

The dying people on the transplant waiting list have no way of speaking for themselves.  First, they are in the end stages of a disease and very sick, additionally they have no political clout, no money, no organization and little chance of living because some self-centered control freaks believe the issue is about them rather than patients.  They argue the ethics of change and maintain the status quo while people who are dying desperately need change from the status quo.  Is twenty-four years of failure to provide enough organs ethical?  Is doing nothing while people die ethical?  Why don’t you study that, bioethicists? 

I, personally, support a program of presumed consent where everyone in the U.S. would be a presumed organ donor unless they have opted out of the system.  Additionally I support incentive payments for organ donors.  Most certainly the devil is in the details but smart people can work it out.  We need to start all over again with people of vision, courage and compassion. 

We need a new approach and once we have it we should cancel the UNOS contract and repeal or amend the 1982 act that created this problem. We must stop the dying and UNOS is not the organization to do it. Please, readers, join me in this effort, comment on this blog and perhaps we can form a movement that will give hope to those who have suffered so long.  Together we can change the system.  

One thing for sure, UNOS is the problem, not the solution.



About Bob Aronson

Bob Aronson is a former journalist, a Minnesota Governor's Press Secretary and talk show host. For nearly a quarter of a century, he led the Aronson Partnership, a Minnesota-based communications consultancy that prepared corporate and government executives for crisis situations, regulatory testimony, media interviews and Presentations. Among his clients were all three U.S. Mayo Clinic locations, 3M, general Mills, CH2M Hill, the U.S. Department of Energy and scores more. In 2007 bob had a heart transplant after suffering from idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy for 12 years. Shortly after he got his new heart he founded the now 4,300 member Facebook support group, Organ Transplant Initiative. At the same time, he established the Bob's Newheart blog where he has posted nearly 300 columns on organ donation, transplantation and other health related issues. The Viewpoint blog was started in late 2016 and bears the name of the Radio Talk show Bob did from 1966 until 1974, when he resigned to become Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich first Press secretary. Bob and his artist wife Robin, live in Jacksonville, Florida with their two dogs, Reilly and Ziggy. Bob is also a woodworker and makes all of the furnishings for Robin's art festival booth. He also makes one of a kind jewelry or "memories" boxes that he donates to select transplant patients, caregivers, donor families and others who have somehow contributed to making life easier for the ill, the elderly and the less fortunate. Bob is in the final stages of editing two full-length novels that will be available on Kindle when ready for release sometime in early 2017. One is a sci fi novel about an amazing discovery near Roswell, New Mexico and you will be surprised to find it has nothing to do with the Roswell story everyone knows. It features a woman scientist who investigates impact craters for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Dr. Rita Sylvester and her female student intern. The other book is a political thriller that introduces a new hero to the genre, Fargo Dennison.

Posted on March 22, 2008, in UNOS & Organ Donation. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Jennifer:

    It is always good to hear from you. You are correct about the number of deaths vs. donors and I apologize to readers if I left the wrong impression. It certainly was not intentional.

    The fact remains, though, 19 people die every day. About 7,000 will die this year and over 100,000 have died since 1995. As I said in my blog, you can torture the numbers forever but you cannot escape the fact that UNOS’ approach to increasing organ donation has failed miserably. It must be changed if the dying people on the transplant list are to have a chance.

    Keep reading and writing


  2. Fudging numbers? No offense, Bob, but you played unfairly with some numbers yourself in this blog: “…over two million people die every year in the U.S. and last year there were only 8,024 deceased donors.” You make it sound like 1,991,976 people who could have donated did not. But in reality, only 1-2% of people die in such a way that they are medically suitable to donate organs. Without dispute, there were a lot of potential donors who did not actually donate….but you should be realistic about the numbers, especially if you’re going accuse other groups of using numbers inaccurately.

    I think more research into the UNOS 1/3 inactive numbers is warranted before raging this much against them, too. As I’m sure you know, many waiting recipients are made inactive while they’re out of town, fighting an infection, took a turn for the better health-wise, etc. I’d hate to see someone bumped back to the bottom of the waiting list (time-wise, anyway) because they spent 9 months fighting a nasty infection while their failing organ got even worse. Inactive seems to be a more fair option than removing them from the waiting list until they get better.


  3. A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks.

    Jason Whitmen


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