But now there's a new procedure to handle the lungs which may reduce that shortage.
The procedure is called ex vivo transplantation, meaning out of the body.
The donor lungs are prepared and tested out of the body of the donor before implanting them in the recipient.
It lets doctors check how well they work beforehand.
What looks like pink bags are human lungs.
If you watch closely, you can see them inflate and deflate.
They'll soon be giving life back to a transplant recipient, but first, they're tested for over four hours to make sure they work.
It's called an ex vivo or "out-of-the-body" transplant.
"It allows us to assess ex vivo lungs that we would otherwise be turning down because of the quality," said Dr. Frank D'Ovidio, NY Presbyterian, Columbia.
They could be poor quality, for example, because of lung injury from an accident which caused the brain death of the donor.
Nancy Block's lungs are not her own now.
They came from an ex vivo lung donor this October to cure a rare and untreatable lung disease.
"It saved my life. I got new lungs. Clean lungs," Block said.
Clean because doctors flush the lungs with nutrients and antibiotics through its own blood vessels, and check its ability to oxygenate the blood.
It's all done under a see-through plastic dome at body temperature and all done right in the operating room.
The bottom line is that the ex vivo technique may make more donor lungs available for transplant.
Right now, only about 25% of donors have lungs good enough to use.
Ex vivo can nourish the organ, even fix it, and perhaps increase that percentage.
But the surgery itself means cutting the front of the body in half from side to side.
Two months later, recovery is still difficult for Nancy.
"There are days when I overdo it and exhaust myself," Block said.
She also must take 20 pills a day, but she's alive.
"I survived it and came out the other side. It's tough but I'm tough. It was the toughest thing I've ever done," Block said.
Dr. D'Ovidio says Nancy should improve more and more with time.
He says his team has a 90% survival rate at one year after transplant.
The ex vivo procedure is still in FDA trials and Columbia is accepting new patients.
For more information please visit: http://www.columbiasurgery.net/2011/05/06/novel-lung-transplant-trial-opens/
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