Staring down a long list of challenges during the pandemic, the Indiana Donor Network has set an all-time record for the number of lifesaving organs transplanted in Indiana in a single calendar year—shattering previous numbers by mid-October, months before the end of the year. The nonprofit organization is on pace to increase the number of organs transplanted by more than 30% compared to 2019, turning tragedy into triumph at a higher rate than other states.
“Most [organ procurement organizations (OPOs)] hope to see some increase—5% or 10%–but I think what sets us apart is that we’re on pace to increase by more than 30% over last year. That’s huge,” says Indiana Donor Network President and Chief Executive Officer Kellie Hanner. “There are other OPOs that have increased their numbers as well, but I would be surprised if anybody was equal to more than 30%.”
While Indiana Donor Network has consistently increased the number of transplants year after year, the organization suffered the same sucker punch as many other medical procedures in the early days of the pandemic in mid-March and April; numbers for donors and transplants slumped.
“It was scary. It was very new to everybody,” says Hanner. “We had to be very mindful sending staff into hospitals and into specific units. Now we know a little more about COVID-19, how it’s spread and how to prevent the spread, but early on, we obviously didn’t know that.”
Hanner says the organization rebounded mightily. Like so many others, Indiana Donor Network transitioned to a virtual format where possible. It began meeting virtually with family members of potential donors; Hanner says having these sensitive conversations on devices instead of in-person was challenging. Pre-pandemic, Indiana Donor Network staff would regularly work inside hospitals to identify potential donors, and that also shifted to a virtual setting during the pandemic.
Additionally, the organization quickly established a partnership with the Indiana State Department of Health to test all potential donors for COVID-19; a person must be negative to donate.
Indiana Donor Network’s rapid response helped it continue its life-saving work; by mid-October, 667 organs had been transplanted, surpassing its 2019 total of 665.
In addition to its swift response when the coronavirus first gripped the nation, several new process improvements were already underway. Indiana Donor Network had begun working more closely with Hoosier hospital partners months before to increase donor referral rates and increased the age range for patients who can potentially become organ donors.
Despite the pandemic, in May, Indiana Donor Network also opened its first Organ and Tissue Recovery Center in Indianapolis; fewer than 20% of the 58 OPOs in the U.S. have on-site organ recovery capabilities. Prior to the new facility, all Indiana organ recovery surgeries took place in hospital operating rooms. Equipped with an intensive care unit and two surgical recovery suites, the center minimizes the preservation time of organs before transplant, reduces strain on hospital partners by freeing up resources and reduces wait times for donor families.
“[The recovery center] is exciting because it gets us out of the hospital where they’re trying to take care of other patients, and it’s difficult when they’re at max volume,” says Hanner. “It allows us to manage the patient at our own pace and, potentially, recover [more organs] and save more lives.”
Hanner credits the organization’s team and Hoosiers for helping it transplant more organs than ever; this is the first full calendar year with more than 4 million people registered as donors in Indiana.
“[Reaching an unprecedented number of donors and transplants this year] says a lot about our staff and their resilience, innovativeness and ability to push the limits. When people were terrified to even leave their homes early in the pandemic, we still had staff out 24/7 working hard to try to save another life—that’s pretty amazing,” says Hanner. “We also credit the generosity of our Hoosiers in making sure that through tragedy, something good can come of that.”
Hanner says Indiana Donor Network was able to continue its work during the early weeks of the pandemic when other states had to shut down.
Hanner says the new Organ and Tissue Recovery Center sets Indiana apart; fewer than 20% of the country’s OPOs have on-site organ recovery capabilities.