Nevada has a 2023 new year’s resolution: Liver transplants for those who need them

By: - January 2, 2023 5:00 am

The Nevada Transplant Institute will work to expand organ transplantation programs and services throughout the state, which organ procurement experts say is behind given its population. (Getty Images)

Nevada has a new year’s resolution for 2023: Perform the state’s first liver transplant and expand other organ transplant services for residents who need them.

Nevada lawmakers on the Interim Finance Committee in October approved a $15 million grant to the Nevada Donor Network to help establish the Nevada Transplant Institute. It is one of the biggest amounts awarded to a single nonprofit organization using the state’s flexible portion of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Nevada Transplant Institute will work to expand organ transplantation programs and services throughout the state, which organ procurement experts say is behind given its population.

Nevada Donor Network President and CEO Joe Ferreira says they expect the state’s first liver transplant to happen within the next 12 months. Once the liver program is established, the state can expand to other organ systems.

Some of the money Nevada is seeding will be used to cover the costs of the first 10 liver transplants. Ten successful liver transplants is what the center will need to earn certification by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) – designations that will qualify it for commercial payers, a key component to become financially sustainable.

Ferreira says the goal is to become financially sustainable within 24 or 25 months and scale up to 50 to 100 liver transplants per year.

The $15 million in ARPA money is on top of other investments, including a $12 million donation from University Medical Center in 2021. Both amounts are part of Nevada Donor Network’s $35 million End The Wait fundraising campaign, which it launched in 2019.

More than 100,000 men, women and children in the U.S. are listed on the national transplant waiting list, according to the federal Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Around 600 of them are Nevadans.

Most are waiting for kidneys.

Nevadans who need a kidney can get their life-saving transplant at University Medical Center in Las Vegas, which established its kidney transplant program in 1989. The only such center in the state, UMC transplants between 150 and 200 kidneys annually.

Nevadans in need of other organs – such as a liver, heart or lungs – must turn elsewhere.

They have to receive their new organ out of state because no Nevada hospitals offer those types of organ implantation services. That puts an additional emotional, physical and financial strain on patients and their families, who often temporarily relocate.

“If they are really sick, they have to wait where they are listed,” says Ferreira. “If they are stable, they can spend some time in Nevada but the farther away from the center that is going to do the transplant the more they risk missing the opportunity. If (an organ) becomes available and they’re not close to the center, (the centers) end up going to the next person – a resident of the state or city maybe.”

Most organs become available when a donor dies, which makes the window for transplants unpredictable and short. Not all families can bear the costs associated with being available for an organ.

According to a 2019 Tripp Umbach study commissioned by the Nevada Donor Network, three-fourths of those patients go to medical centers in California – University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Southern California (USC), and Loma Linda University Medical Center.

Many Nevadans in need of kidneys have to seek implantation out of state because UMC doesn’t have a capacity proportional to the population size, which has seen rapid growth and shortage of medical services at all levels.

Nevada Donor Network says currently 90% of organs recovered in Nevada are sent out of state. They are hopeful the Nevada Transplant Institute will change that.

Seventeen people in the United States die every day because the organ they need doesn’t come, according to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration.

According to federal data, 245 people in Nevada became donors in 2021 – 211 of those donors were deceased, 34 were living. Each donor can save up to eight lives.

What people can do now

When getting a driver license (or other identification card) at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, you can opt in to the Nevada State Donor Registry.

You can also register as an organ donor on the federal registry.

More than 1.5 million Nevadans are listed in the state donor registry. Another 57,000 are listed in the national registry.

Both of those things establish an official record of your preference to be an organ donor upon death, but one of the most powerful things you can do, says Ferreira, is to tell your loved ones about your preference.

“It makes the decision easier for them as they’re grieving for your loss,” he says.

Having that discussion when you are healthy allows people to address any misinformation that well-meaning family members might be harboring. Some people do not realize, for example, that every major religion supports organ donation. Others don’t realize that organ donation doesn’t become a conversation until medical professionals have already done everything they can to save a patient’s life.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.

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