TUESDAY, June 23, 2009 (Health.com) — This week it was reported that Steven Jobs, the CEO and cofounder of Apple, underwent a liver transplant two months ago. One detail concerning Jobs’s transplant seemed odd: The surgery took place at a hospital in Tennessee, some 2,000 miles from Jobs’s home in northern California. Why Tennessee?
The answer sheds light on the intricacies of the organ transplant system, as well as why it’s sometimes easier for people with significant financial resources to get an organ transplant. (Jobs’s estimated net worth: $5.7 billion.)
Livers are a scarce resource. In any given year, only about one-third of the people on the national transplant waiting list receive one, and as of late June, more than 16,000 people were on the list.
Yet it sometimes seems that celebrities in need end up at the front of the line when they need a transplants, and people often assume they get preferential treatment. (Rumors about special treatment circulated after baseball player Mickey Mantle’s liver transplant in 1995, for example.)
The truth is more complicated. No one can actually buy an organ in the United States (legally, that is). But getting a liver transplant, it turns out, is a lot like getting into college. Once you’re on the waiting list, your chances of getting off it depend largely on your personal circumstances—how sick you are and whether you are a good donor match. But getting on the list in the first place—or more than one list, as the case may be—requires resources and know-how that most people don’t have.
Next page: Can some people “cut the line”?