By Olivia Scheck
MANHATTAN — An unprecedented pilot program to get more viable organ donations from Manhattan residents who die at home begins Wednesday.
The new initiative will send an "organ preservation unit" — a team comprised of an emergency physician, two EMTs and a family services specialist — on certain calls for help, city officials announced Wednesday.
If emergency service workers are unable to save the patient, the organ preservation team will step in to salvage their organs before they become unusable.
The pilot program, which will run through May, will apply exclusively to cardiac patients and attempt to remove only kidneys, said doctors at Bellevue Hospital Center, where the removal surgery will take place.
Dr. Bradley Kaufman, medical director of the FDNY's medical department, said the program's potential is "extraordinary."
"The potential is to completely eliminate the wait list for people waiting for kidney donations in New York City," he said.
To ensure that the interests of patients and their loved ones are protected, the organ preservation team is required to confirm that patients are registered organ donors, said Dr. Lewis Goldfrank, director of Emergency Services at Bellevue.
They must also obtain consent from family members before transporting them to the organ preservation vehicle and again at the hospital before doctors can perform the organ removal.
But if no family member is present when emergency service workers respond to the scene, the preservation team will load him or her into the truck without additional consent if they are a registered organ donor, Julia Rivera, Director of Communications for the New York Organ Donor Network (NYODN), clarified.
Dr. Goldfrank described the process as a "very, very conservative" model.
"We're not going to do anything against the wishes of the people," he said.
However, he said the team will consider easing the rules for permission to increase the number of organs they are able to take if the pilot program is deemed a success.
The organ preservation unit, which will remain off-site until the patient has been declared dead, has about 20 minutes to get the individual into the vehicle before the organs are considered unusable, officials said.
Once in the truck, medical professionals will attach the patient to a ventilator and chest compression machine, in order to deliver oxygen to the organs.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg hailed the plan, noting in a statement that the program could "transform the way we donate organs" and help save some of the nearly 8,000 people who currently await organs in New York City.
It will be the first program of its kind in the United States, although similar efforts have been launched in Spain and France, the statement noted.
If successful, the program, which will be confined to Manhattan, may expand to other parts of the city, the statement said.
Only 285 deceased individuals became organ donors in New York City during 2009, while approximately 7,600 New Yorkers awaited transplants, according to the NYODN website.
Queens resident Dorris Nowillo-Suda urged New Yorkers to sign up to become donors, and said her father, Nicolas, saved more than 50 people by giving his organs after he was murdered in Sept, 2008.
"We all have to die, but we can all save others in our passing," she said.
The U.S. Department of Health Resources and Services Administration provided a $1.5 million grant for the initiative.
Jill Colvin contributed reporting.