June 6, 2012 -- Montefiore Hospital in New York voluntarily suspended its live donor organ transplant program after a woman who was trying to donate a kidney to a relative died during an operation, according to a hospital source.
The voluntary move by the hospital has drawn attention to the possible dangers of living organ donation, and some experts say the case may dissuade some who are contemplating becoming a live donor to follow through.
The incident, which is now under investigation by the state health department, is the first live donor operation death to occur at the hospital, according to hospital sources.
"The patient experienced a rare complication of this surgery," according to a spokeswoman for the hospital, who would not confirm details of the case. "The doctors recognized the problem and took extensive steps to save the patient's life."
More than 900 people nationwide have participated as living donors since January 2012, according to data by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
Organ donation registries and transplant centers often see a spike in cases after campaigns launched to persuade people to become an organ donor.
"[Live organ donation] is incredibly important because there are not enough cadaver organs to go around," said Dr. Jonathan Bromberg, chief of the division of transplantation at the University of Maryland. "Live organ donations allow us to save more lives."
Bromberg said however rare a fatal complication may be, the number of willing donors plummet when people hear about cases where a transplant goes wrong.
"We often do see a decrease in people willing to be a living or deceased donor," said Bromberg. "We do have very direct conversations with those who are considering being a donor about the risks."
Live organ donations are among the most highly regulated procedures, not just by the hospitals but federal agencies including the Health Resources and Services Administration, according to Dr. Alan Koffron, chairman of surgery and director of the transplant program at William Beaumont hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
"It's so well controlled and so well regulated that it's typical that when something goes wrong the center shuts down to find what's wrong," said Koffron. "We're trying to be good stewards of this procedure."Kidney and liver are among the most common organs donated by a living person.
Organs from live donors are more likely to function sooner in the recipient's body and be of better quality than an organ from a deceased donor since the live donor organ has only been out of the body for a short time. Living donor and recipient surgeries are typically done on the same day to help preserve the organ.
Evidence also suggests that recipients of live donor organs live longer and have a better quality of life.
While donor surgery carries many of the same risks as other surgical procedures, it may be considered safer than most operations, according to Koffron.
"We only use healthy individuals to donate, unlike surgeries that are used to fix a problem they have," said Koffron. "So right away this person doesn't require the operation."
An estimated 2 out of 10,000 live donors die during an operation, according to Bromberg.
Live donors go through rigorous consent process of physical and medical tests along with paperwork to assess whether they are qualified to undergo transplant surgery. The process can last for an average of four months, said Koffron.
But even with a highly regulated process, complications can still happen, said Koffron.
Lorraine Hawks was married to her husband for nearly 36 years before he died while donating part of his liver to his brother-in-law in 2010 at the Lahey Clinic in Massachusetts.
Hawks, who allegedly plans to file a lawsuit against the Lahey Clinic, cited hospital error as a reason for complications that led to his death.
Hawks' lawyer David Meyer told ABCNews.com in April 2012 that medical records showed Hawks' husband was not a good candidate to undergo transplant surgery.
The Lahey Clinic would not comment on the case.
Liver donations are considered riskier than kidney donations since the liver is a single organ in the body and is considered a vital organ.
"For any surgery there's a risk of bleeding," said Koffron. "For organ transplant there has to be vessels that need to be reconnected."
Even post-surgery, donors may get an infection or a blood clot, said Koffron, adding that these complications are extremely rare.
"You can't predict who this can happen to," he said.
Rare cases should not dissuade people who are considering being a live donor, Koffron said.
"It is a catastrophe, but if you think of all the successful donations and having people have a better life because of their donation, you have to weigh the options," said Koffron.