Politics & Government

New law expands funding for organ transplant network

WASHINGTON -- The nearly 19,000 California patients awaiting an organ transplant could benefit from a bill signed by President Bush this week.

Co-authored by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, the bill more than triples federal funding for an existing organ transplant network. The network maintains a national transplant waiting list and helps get donated organs to the people who need them.

"The money could be helpful, for instance, in expanding the registry to determine matches," Costa said Thursday.

The parents of Aaron Villa-Martinez know what this means.

Irma Villa-Martinez and her husband, Ray, run a movie theater in their newly adopted hometown of Oakhurst; he is also a Clovis-based state firefighter. Their son Aaron is 7. He is about to return home after receiving a liver, intestine and pancreas transplant at UCLA medical center.

Aaron's intestines began failing several years ago. He underwent one transplant, without lasting success. Harsh medicines damaged his liver and pancreas. On Aug. 3, doctors undertook another eight-hour transplant operation. Next week, sporting his second new intestine as well as new liver and pancreas, Aaron will be rejoining his parents.

"Everything is going well," Irma Villa-Martinez said Thursday. "It's taken, and there is no sign of rejection at this point."

Aaron is lucky, in a sense.

Last year, 18,800 Californians were on a nationwide organ waiting list. A total of 3,030 California residents received donated organs last year, but 1,366 Californians died while waiting for an organ transplant.

"We want the number of people dying while on the waiting list to decrease," stressed Dr. Sue McDiarmid, a transplant physician who has been the bridge between Costa and patients like Aaron.

McDiarmid was a member of Aaron Villa-Martinez's medical team. The New Zealand native has also been a friend of Costa's for about 20 years, since doing her pediatric residency in Fresno during the early 1980s, and she's a one-time contributor to his re-election campaign. On Monday, with Congress in recess, Costa was at UCLA medical center visiting Aaron Villa-Martinez.

As past president of United Network for Organ Sharing, a non-profit group that administers the national organ transplant network, McDiarmid some time back took up her broader cause with sympathetic lawmakers.

"I could see we needed some help from our friends in government," McDiarmid said.

Costa responded by helping establish the Congressional Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Caucus, one of many acutely focused and often bipartisan collaborations found in the House. The caucus has hosted Capitol Hill workshops, and its members provided the political heft behind the new organ transplant legislation.

The new law signed by Bush on Wednesday increases from $2 million to $7 million federal funding for what is formally called the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Congress established the network in 1984 but let the funding stagnate for years.

Among other efforts, the network helps coordinates work of the nation's transplant centers, including 19 in California. Two of the transplant centers are in the Central Valley; one in Sacramento and one in Davis. The federally funded network also helps serve California's four organ procurement organizations, including the Sacramento-based Golden State Donor Services.

The newly signed Stephanie Tubbs Jones Organ Transplant Authorization Act is named for one of Costa's former colleagues, the late Ohio congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones. She died Aug. 20 from a brain aneurysm, after which up to 58 patients were said to benefit from her donated organs and tissue.

Even with Jones' far-flung donations, though, 100,244 U.S. patients were still awaiting an organ transplant as of Thursday afternoon. Since January, 8,326 U.S. residents had donated their organs.

"It's perhaps the most precious gift we can give," Costa declared during House debate last month. "I know because I am one of those who intends to do just that."