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EXPORTER: Few options for local organ transplant patients

Reported by: Vicki Gonzalez
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Updated: 5/07 10:56 am
LAS VEGAS (KSNV & MyNews3) -- On Christmas Day 1989, University Medical Center began giving the gift of organ donation. UMC is currently Nevada's only transplant center.

Since 2010, Dr. John Ham has transplanted kidneys, the only organ available to Nevada residents at local hospitals, as well as contributing to the Nevada Donor Network's world-leading success in organ recovery.

"We certainly have exported more organs," Ham said. "It would be nice if we had transplant programs here to use those organs here."

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, upwards of 150 patients in Nevada need life-saving organ transplants that local hospitals can't provide. Why are Southern Nevada patients bereft of opportunities when their state is a leader in organ recovery?

Hospital transplant programs are needed to merge that gap.

Dr. Ham estimates $10 million would be needed to launch programs, but numbers only tell one side of a complex issue. Arguably the more difficult task is generating the momentum to make this a priority.

"We could have all of that here, but I don't think there has been a political will to do that," Ham said.

Currently 42 other states --  as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico -- offer more organ transplant options than Nevada. While Nevada waits to catch up, people like Laurie Gearhart suffer and the odds are against her.

"I am fighting everything constantly," Gearhart said. "I have had five heart attacks since 2009. I am going to die."

Gearhart has been waiting for a heart since February, thrown into an array of obstacles that are nothing short of medical essentials, like insurance, and the complications of coordinating financial support and travel between states.

"Nevada Medicaid does not cover out-of-state medical expenses," Gearhart said.

Because her transplant center is in San Diego, Gearhart has to purchase additional coverage completely out-of-pocket.

"Are we going to pay the power bill or are we going to buy food? It's literally a decision," Gearhart said.

And the pressure is high. If she misses one payment, she says she's immediately taken off the heart transplant list.

"We are scared every day, every day," Gearhart said.

Laurie and her husband Ed make trips to California that are quick and exhausting turnarounds because of costs. "I did 18 tests in 4 days, which included 25 viles of blood," says Gearhart.

Just as patients like Laurie are forced to find transplant care out of state, Dr. Ham says distance also may work against their ability to find a life-saving organ match.

"If they are sick here, they have to be stabilized and moved to a place for a transplant, and so you are going to lose patients along the way," says Ham.

Gearhart never envisioned this would be so difficult.

"I have always been the kind of person that 'nothing is too difficult. I got this," Gearhart said. "And now I am starting to realize that I don't."

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