Chapel Hill’s HonorBridge helps the dead to help the living

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.


By Fraser Sherman

Talking to families of the dead about their loved one’s organ donations is never easy, Chuck Heald of HonorBridge says, but it’s worth the effort.  “We’re saving lives. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

HonorBridge’s website identifies it as a federally designated organ-procurement organization (OPO), the largest such in North Carolina. Their staff work to recover organs and tissues from deceased donors for transplants, working with over 100 hospitals and four transplant centers to match organ and tissue donations with recipients; transport the transplant material, encourage state residents to register as donors; and meet with donor families and friends when the hour comes.

“We’re the team behind the transplant team everyone sees in the movies,” Heald told The Local Reporter. “We’re that team that works with the families during the most tragic time of their lives, when a loved one has passed away.”

Last March, the OPO relocated from Durham to its new headquarters on Millhouse Road in Chapel Hill. Heald said HonorBridge began planning to move 10 years ago, when their former HQ was right in the planned path of a Durham light rail project that never came to pass. However, he said, the move was still a win. The old building was 12,000 square feet; the new one is 56,000. Heald said they can accomplish more now and fit the OPO’s almost 200 staffers into a single conference room.

Organs and Tissues

Heald said 2023 was a record-breaking year in terms of the number of donors and the number of organ transplants they handled: approximately 352 organ donors, 1,272 organs removed and 912 lives saved. One of the pluses of their new facility, Heald added, is that they’re able to secure organs for transplant where their old HQ was only set up for tissue transplants. Each body on a ventilator at HonorBridge frees up a bed and ventilator at a hospital.

Transplantable organs include heart, lungs, liver, pancreas and kidneys. Transplantable tissues include skin grafts for burn victims, breast tissue to restore a mastectomy patient, and heart valves. Transplant centers have to match organs carefully to avoid a hostile immunological response, Heald said, but science can neutralize that response in transplanted tissues.

Talking With Families

By law, Heald said, hospitals have to contact HonorBridge when a patient is on the brink of death. The OPO staff then look up whether the deceased is a registered donor and whether they’re disqualified by medical factors, such as having active cancers. If the potential for donation is good, HonorBridge sends a team to tackle the tough job of talking with the deceased’s spouse and other family members.

If someone has registered as an organ donor, that is a legally binding decision: family members can’t override the deceased. However, Heald said, HonorBridge prefers working with the family and getting them on board if possible.

“We talk to families who earlier in the day had just kissed their loved one goodbye,” he said. “All at once, there is a catastrophic event and they’ve died. When we meet with the families in the hospital setting, they’re often in shock and trying to process what’s happened.” Some people power through, others are sobbing or angry; part of the team’s role is to meet them wherever they are in the grieving process. The team may broach the subject with the family if the deceased isn’t registered as an organ donor.

The Recipient Side

HonorBridge also looks at the list of potential recipients to find the best match based on blood type, size of the organ — you can’t fit an adult’s heart into a kid’s body — and other medical criteria. There’s also the practical requirement that they have to be able to contact a potential recipient promptly, which doesn’t always happen: “They could be on vacation, they could be in Home Depot.”

If HonorBridge can reach them and the individual can reach the transplant center in time, and they don’t suffer from a disqualifying health condition, the transplant can proceed. Disqualifying conditions for heart transplants, for example, include smoking, severe systemic disease, some neurological conditions and mental illnesses that make it too difficult to ensure post-transplant care and safety.

Increasing the donor pool is an ongoing challenge for OPOs, Heald said. Last year, HonorBridge received a grant of around $500,000 so they could identify potential kidney donors faster and reach out to them. Increased outreach is important, he said, because North Carolina doesn’t donate much: 53 percent of all North Carolinians have signed up, less than the national average. “We need people to say yes at the DMV.”

Once HonorBridge secures donated organs or tissues, he said, then they coordinate the rest of the transplant process. In some cases, the transplant surgery team comes to North Carolina; in others HonorBridge recovers the organs, then sends them by jet to the hospital handling the operation.  Heald said another advantage of their new Chapel Hill location is that it’s a short hop to I-40 and then to the airport.

Heald said that the job’s not over even after the organ’s on its way.  They provide comfort, education and care for up to two years to donors’ families, if that’s what they need.

* Editor’s note: this article previously included a photo of a teaching mannequin with life threatening injuries.  It was removed at the editor’s discretion for being potentially disturbing to some readers.

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.

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