It’s not uncommon for Cole Tumey, 19, to sleep the day away. The Belleview resident’s not just any teenager enjoying summer break, though. His exhaustion stems from dialysis, which he’s had three days a week for the last two years. Born with kidney failure, Tumey lived 15 years with no problems after his mom donated one of her kidneys. Then that one failed, too. He doesn’t know how long the wait for another will be. Transplant programs are eager to ramp up surgeries again, after the coronavirus contributed to the ongoing organ shortage. “Donation dropped, not just in the U.S.,” said Dr. Thiago Beduschi, director of the University of Florida Health Shands Transplant Center and professor of surgery at UF College of Medicine. “It’s the first time that we faced something like this.”
Transplants of all organs in April decreased from 3,179 in 2019 to 2,179 during the same period this year, according to United Network for Organ Sharing data. The bulk of the drop occurred in living-donor transplants, which declined nearly 84% because most hospitals put living-donor programs on hold to protect patients and preserve resources during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But lifesaving transplants from deceased donors continued for many, and local programs are resuming transplants from the living.
From May 1-29, 2,978 transplants occurred, slightly lower than the 3,256 transplants in the same time period last year.
“There was a brief period of time when we had to quickly adapt,” said Dr. Naveen Bellam, transplant cardiologist at AdventHealth in Orlando.
The transplant community worked to ensure organs that did become available made it to transplant knowing not as many organs would be available, said Anne Paschke, media relations specialist for UNOS.
Local hospitals implemented policies to ensure emergency transplants could continue and postponed transplants from living donors.
They restricted all nonessential visitors to protect vulnerable patients.
Donald Hamel couldn’t see his wife, Pam Bloom-Hamel, during that time. The Village Hacienda resident was admitted to AdventHealth when his heart condition deteriorated about a month ago.
He couldn’t wait to be reunited with her when that policy eased to allow some visitors.
“He started crying,” Bloom-Hamel said.
Waiting for a transplant is difficult enough when not alone, said Bob Dunphy, who was hospitalized for months before receiving a heart in 2016.
“(Every day) is a long day,” said Dunphy, of the Village of Collier. “You have to stay confined because you have different things stuck in your neck.”
Many hospitals continue to limit visitors to one per patient. So when Hamel was undergoing his 12-hour surgery June 2, Bloom-Hamel sat alone in the waiting room.
“That was tough,” she said.
Her husband is doing well overall during recovery, Bloom-Hamel said.
“He winked at me this morning, so that was good,” she said three days after transplant.
The couple is relieved to have received a heart because Bloom-Hamel said they were initially told they may have a longer wait because of the coronavirus.
The pandemic compromised transplant programs in harder-hit areas of the country, Beduschi said.
“We’re very fortunate that it was not as bad here,” he said. “In our region, we’ve rapidly come back to the regular volumes.”
Demand for organs has long outpaced the number available for transplant, and programs can’t accept donations from patients who died with COVID-19.
Additionally, more people staying home during the pandemic led to fewer accidents, Paschke said.
Many usable organs are found as a result of tragic accidents.
David Irvine knows another family’s tragedy led to him receiving a liver 18 years ago.
“I think about it every day,” said Irvine, of the Village of Sanibel.
A driver T-boned the car of his donor, a 19-year-old woman. She was out registering for wedding gifts with her fiance.
Only about 2% of people die in a way that makes their organs viable for donation.
Last year set a record with 39,719 transplants, an 8.7% increase from 2018.
But more than 100,000 people were waiting for an organ.
“We have a lot of people dying without a second chance,” Beduschi said.
Researchers are working to improve the pool of organs, like by transplanting organs from patients with hepatitis C because new drugs can prevent transmission of the virus to patients receiving the transplants.
But the field is a long way off from ensuring everyone who needs an organ gets one, Beduschi said.
“There are still a lot of people in need,” Paschke said. “Everybody has the ability to give someone hope by becoming a donor.”
Don’t rule yourself out because of age or health conditions, she said, because even if you are unable to give organs, you might be able to be a tissue donor.
Everyone, especially snowbirds, should sign up for the national registry by visiting registerme.org, Paschke said, even if already registered through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Irvine always is asking people if they’re registered donors.
“Most people I talk to say yes, they are,” he said. “That’s very encouraging.”
Jodie Novak, of the Village of Charlotte, is passionate about living donation. The vast majority of wait-listed people need a kidney.
Novak donated one of hers to a stranger in 2017.
“I feel no different than I did before the donation and I would do it over and over again,” she said.
Novak’s gift was inspired by a then 2-year-old boy in a preschool class where she worked as a paraprofessional. He had Stage 3 kidney disease and might need a kidney one day.
Vicki Beaty, of the Village of Pine Hills, said many don’t know about the possibility of becoming a living donor.
Her husband, Brian, is on a kidney transplant wait list.
“I think that education isn’t out there for people,” she said, adding that she has a good feeling a kidney will come through for Brian.
Local organ recipients remain grateful for the generosity of their donors.
“Fourteen years out, I wake up smiling every day and thanking the guy who gave me his heart,” said Thomas Waters, of the Village of Hillsborough.
Jay Timson, of Summerfield, was near death when he got his liver in August, his wife, Christina, said.
“It was starting to get to, “How am I going to move forward and take care of my children without the center of my world?’” Christina said. “Once you’re on that slide, you’re at the mercy of the donor.”
Jay has bounced back, his wife said, though he’s staying home to protect his health during the pandemic.
“He’s looking forward to enjoying life and being alive because there was a period of time when it didn’t look like that would work out for him,” Christina said.
Dunphy befriended the family of his donor and has kept in close contact ever since. He recovered physically and works five to six days a week as a handyman.
“I’m just enjoying the hell out of my life,” he said. “It’s tough to go through, but you can never give up hope.”
Tumey is still looking for a donor between the ages of 18 and 60 with B or O blood type. Six hundred applicants have reached out about becoming Tumey’s donor, and more than 200 of those were able to be screened.
Second-time recipients have more markers that donors need to meet, said Leona Yawn, his mother.
Until a match is found, Tumey’s life is on hold in some ways, she said.
He can’t jump into a pool with his friends because he has a port and would risk infection. And he can’t drive because dialysis filters out his seizure medication, leading to weekly episodes.
It can be hard missing out on normal teenage activities, but Tumey keeps a positive attitude and volunteers his time at church and Belleview Christian Academy, Yawn said.
“He loves people and he loves family, and we do our best to just keep on keeping on,” she said. “We’re positive that it will happen one way or the other.”
Senior writer Ciara Varone can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5395, or firstname.lastname@example.org.