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  • Living Organ Donors’ Stories: (Unmet) Expectations about Informed Consent, Outcomes, and Care
  • Elisa J. Gordon, Symposium Editor

Ethics, informed consent, kidney, liver, living donor, narrative, transplantation

Living donor organ transplantation has become standard treatment for patients with end-stage kidney or end-stage liver disease. Live donors comprised approximately 5,769 (34%) and 247 (4%) of all kidney and liver transplants in 2011, respectively (OPTN/UNOS). The reasons why people donate, the perception that donating does not entail a decision per se, and the attendant fears and anxieties living donors feel about donating, have all been previously well investigated (Lennerling, Forsberg, Meyer, & Nyberg, 2004; Papachristou, Walter, Frommer, & Klapp, 2010). But much less is known about how donors experienced the overall donation process including the donor evaluation, preparation, appreciation of risks, decision-making, informed consent, post-operative, recovery processes, and the impact of donating on all aspects of their life, from their point of view. Thus, a narrative approach is essential for gaining insights into these less well known phenomena.

There is good reason to remain concerned about the safety and ethical basis of living donation considering that living donors undergo serious health risks for no direct medical benefit to themselves (Ethics Committee of the Transplantation Society, 2004; Laird, 2012; Neergaard, 2011; Ratner & Sandoval, 2010; Shelton, 2011). The situation raises serious ethical questions specifically about nonmaleficence and informed consent, and more broadly about using people as a means to an end. The absence of long-term information may not undermine a willing donor’s commitment to save a loved one’s life, but is certainly cause for concern among transplant clinicians who want to be sure to disclose information that may be material for donors in order to provide adequate informed consent. In other words, the disjuncture between what transplant clinicians find important to disclose to donors and what prospective donors need to know—which follows along the lines of what Elliot Mishler referred to as the ‘voice of medicine’ versus the ‘voice of the lifeworld’(1984)—seems to complicate donors’ preparation for donation. Donors’ stories are important for addressing these concerns by identifying risks that typically do not get reported in the scientific literature—perhaps owing to a different [End Page 1] conceptualization of what should be construed as noteworthy risks—as well as by demonstrating how personal situations can enhance or detract from the experience overall.

This issue of Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics (NIB) affords a unique entrée into both the often heard and unheard stories of living organ donors. A set of topical areas were presented for the authors’ consideration that relate to the donation process in general and the informed consent process more specifically: whether donors were prepared to donate; comprehended what they were told; could have understood the process better, as well as, the impact of donation on health, employment, finances, and personal relationships (Table 1). When soliciting donors’ stories, every effort was made to include a full range of experiences—both good and bad—from a variety of donors: kidney donation, liver donation, adult-to-adult and adult-to-child donation, related, unrelated, directed and anonymous (also known as ‘altruistic’ or ‘good Samaritan’ donors), paired chain exchange, and list exchange (Table 2)—in order to present a balanced perspective on live donation. Additionally, this issue includes a full breadth of stories about the donor experience, ranging from positive to mixed to negative (Table 3). While donors were given tremendous leeway in what stories they told, they were asked to focus their narratives on the lesser known dimensions of donation—the experience of it. While additional stories from liver donors would have helped to underscore common concerns among liver donors, we only received a few. Some of the donors are themselves health care professionals, active in the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) or their local OPO, or have leveraged their experiences to help others by becoming a donor buddy or donor advocate. Given that we received more stories than

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Table 1.

Topical areas to address

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Table 2.

Forms of Living Donation

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