Dr. Michael Millis, a transplant surgeon and the director of the University of Chicago Liver Transplant Program, has performed more than 1,000 liver transplants. In addition to this incredible work as a transplant surgeon, Michael has also successfully transformed the contentious approach to organ donation in China.
During trips to China in the late 1990s, he learned that executed prisoners were the primary source of donor organs. In a practice called “transplant tourism,” individuals from around the world could fly to China for transplant surgery and essentially order any organ they needed. In some cases, judges even pronounced death sentences to
prisoners and scheduled executions to meet the needs of local hospitals. Michael grew even more troubled when he began treating patients in Chicago—both Chinese and American nationals—who had suffered complications after transplants in China.
Michael took immediate action and became an expert on the organ donation process in China. He took multiple trips to China and established relationships with local doctors as well as the Vice Minister of Health, Jiefu Huang. In late 2006, the vice minister of health publicly acknowledged the use of prisoner organs being used for donations. For
Michael, this indicated that there was an opportunity for change.
Working together, Jiefu and Michael secured a grant from the China Medical Board to investigate alternative approaches. By 2006, Michael had become the main consultant to help design the new system. At that point, 95% of organ donations in China were from executed prisoners and transplant tourism was widespread, with few regulations
governing transplant quality. Major changes were afoot.
In 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Health began requiring stricter standards for any hospital that offered transplants, cutting the total number of such facilities from 600 to fewer than 200. A central registry of donors was set up, along with educational initiatives to encourage volunteer donation. To stamp out transplant tourism, the government
declared that Chinese citizens receive priority as organ recipients and regulations were put into place requiring prisoners or prisoners’ families to sign consent agreements to donate organs. Penalties were put into place for involvement in illegal activities.
Largely led by Michael’s and Jiefu Huang’s efforts, an official ban prohibiting the use of executed prisoner organs for transplants was put into place in January 2015. Now, a volunteer donor program is in place that is supported by the government, enacted by hospitals, and lauded by locals and international agencies as well.
Michael says his Chinese counterparts have started complaining about the same things his American colleagues do: their unpredictable schedules, the calls to operate in the middle of the night, being overworked one day and bored the next. “These are all issues you deal with when you’re a surgeon who depends on volunteer donations,” he said.
“That shows me they’re on the right track.”
The Global Citizenship Award is presented to an individual(s) who volunteered or worked to meet the needs of the world’s potentially vulnerable populations by building safer, more resilient communities and providing needed relief.
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