When we think of war casualties, we usually think of the...

Mortal Matters

February 18, 1991|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

When we think of war casualties, we usually think of the dead. But those haunting numbers also include the wounded, and the task of treating them depends not just on the skills of medical personnel, but also on their supplies.

That's where we come in. Some of the most essential supplies can't be purchased, but come from other human bodies - in many cases, literally a gift of life. That means the men and women who suffer wounds in the Persian Gulf will be counting on the willingness of people back home to help.

Throughout the country, Americans have already donated blood, which in wartime is always needed in great quantities. That need will continue, especially since the amount diverted to the Persian Gulf is straining supplies for civilians.

But unlike blood, which most healthy people can donate several times a year, other essential supplies must be taken from the bodies of people who have recently died.

So the American Red Cross, working in conjunction with the Armed Forces, has issued a plea for families to think more carefully about some things that are often put out of mind during times of peace - the need for donations of skin, as well as other useful tissues like bones, ligaments, corneas, blood veins or heart valves. In many cases, people who do not qualify for donating major organs like a heart, lung or kidney are ideal tissue donors.

These donations can speed recovery and even save lives. A large number of war wounds are burns and, next to blood, one of the greatest demands for health supplies in wartime is for skin for grafting onto burn and trauma injuries.

A thin layer of skin - about the thickness that peels off after a sunburn - is one of the most effective treatments for burns. Used as a temporary covering, the donated skin promotes healing and prevents infection. Skin does not have to match perfectly, and a burn patient can use a skin graft from anyone else. The final, permanent graft will come from his own body.

In normal times, donors provide only one-sixth as much skin as burn victims need. But these are not normal times.

A typical burn victim needs about 10 square feet of donated skin, about the amount supplied by three donors. But war wounds can be more severe, requiring as much as 50 square feet of skin. In Vietnam, 10 percent of the wounded were burn victims, and 10 percent of those wounds required donated skin.

One reason there is such a shortage of important tissues is that Americans simply haven't gotten into the habit of thinking about ways in which they can help other people at death. Maybe one good result of this war will be to make us all aware of the needs for donations that exist all the time, but which are especially urgent now.

So here's a suggestion: If you aren't currently a donor for tissues as well as organs, give it some serious thought. Make your decision and discuss it with your family or next of kin so they will be comfortable approving the donation should the occasion arise. Sign a donor card and carry it with you. (They are available from the American Red Cross and, generally, from motor vehicle departments.) You may also want your decision to donate noted in your medical records.

Like organ donations, tissue donations will not disfigure bodies, make an open-casket funeral difficult or delay burial plans.

More information is available through the American Red Crostissue services at 1-800-2-TISSUE.

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