“I feel very fortunate, especially after watching so many people pass being on dialysis,” she said. “I’m seeing a lot of people die and I’m like, ‘It’s taking so long, it might not happen for me either.’”
Dialysis can be taxing on the body and does not cure kidney disease. Life expectancy for patients on dialysis varies greatly, but the average is five to 10 years, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Kidney transplants can improve life expectancy and quality of life, but many people who get one eventually need another.
The United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages the American transplant system, says that although the need for organs still far exceeds supply, donations are at historic highs. From January to March of this year, 9,500 transplants were performed, from 4,500 donors.
But there are still about 75,000 people who are cleared to have surgery and are waiting for organ donations. Including those not currently eligible for surgery, more than 113,000 people are waiting for organs.
The shortage of organs has lethal consequences. In 2017, the agency said, more than 6,500 candidates died while on the wait list, or within 30 days of leaving the list for personal or medical reasons without receiving a transplant. That makes the notion of an organ becoming less healthy during transit all the more galling, Dr. Scalea said.
The drone used in this month’s test had backup propellers and motors, dual batteries and a parachute recovery system, to guard against catastrophe if one component encountered a problem 400 feet in the air. Two pilots on the ground monitored it using a wireless network, and were prepared to override the automated flight plan in case of emergency. The drone also had built-in devices to measure temperature, barometric pressure and vibrations, among other indicators.
Dr. Scalea called the flight “proof of concept that this broken system can be innovated.”
He added that current organ transport is “data-blind,” meaning doctors often cannot see an organ’s progress in transit. The drone allows timely updates on its progress, the way you might track an approaching taxi on your phone.