Organ donation is one of the things l would like to think about

tomorrow, or maybe the day after tomorrow. I was jolted out of this

cowardly, self-dulusional (maybe I really will live forever) position

by a rapid-fire question at, of all places, the motor vehicle office.

Practically home-free in my quest for the new digital driver’s license

– marriage certificate found and presented, and photo taken – I was

about to claim my high-tech license to drive when the clerk, looking

down at her paperwork, asked: "Do you want to be an organ donor?"

Asked the same question as he was being admitted to the hospital for

the last time, my 89-year-old father, with ample reason to feel

cranky, snapped: "No! I need all of my organs."

Before making the decision, I would have liked to look into the whole

what-if-they-snatch-some-organs-when-I-might-have-made-a-miraculous-re

covery thing. But I hate the MVC. It’s depressing, and makes me feel

vaguely criminal. I just wanted out. Besides, the clerk didn’t look

happy, and she didn’t look at all interested in discussing the finer

points of organ donation. She just wanted to keep the line moving.

What’s more, people were listening. I did not think that "maybe," let

alone "no," was an acceptable answer on any level. (I imagined the

other people in line exclaiming "What? You won’t be a donor? How could

you be so selfish!")

Given only a fraction of a fraction of a second to consider a

response, I said yes. I felt I had no choice. License in hand, and out

of the place, I admired the genius of the MVC strategy. Who could

possibly say no in such a public place?

Plenty of people, it turns out.

"About twenty-eight percent of people are saying yes," according to

Cindy Gordon, managing partner of Insight Communications, an

18-year-old PR and public policy firm with offices on Poor Farm Road.

She and her firm, representing the New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing

Network, are responsible for getting the MVC clerks to ask the

question. "Most people in New Jersey go to that office," she says. "We

recognized it as a teriffic place. We worked with MVC to incorporate

the question."

Before the advent of the digital license, applicants could check a box

indicating whether they wished to be organ donors, but responses were

not tracked, so Gordon doesn’t know if the new method is pushing more

of the death-decisions-adverse to become potential donors. She does

know, however, why many people who have the nerve to say no in a

public place do so.

"There are a lot of myths about organ donation," she says. "Many

people think that their religions don’t allow it, but, in fact, no

major religion is against organ donation." Others fear that their

deaths will be rushed so that their organs can be harvested. This is

absolutely not true, Gordon assures, explaining that there is a system

of checks in place to determine that brain death has occurred before

any organ is removed.

Still another reason for reluctance is television viewing. Organ

donation has become a popular topic on shows like "ER," "CSI," "Grey’s

Anatomy," and "House," she says. "It’s a good thing in one way. It

does raise awareness. But it can also be a bad thing." The shows, she

says, frequently devise scenarios that do not – cannot – happen.

Watching these dramas can make many potential donors wonder whether

their gift of life would be used correctly, and with respect.

All of these reasons for not agreeing to be an organ donor make it

imperative that Gordon work every media available to get the truth

out. The need is desperate. "There are 3,000 people on the waiting

list in New Jersey," she says, "and 92,000 nation-wide. The need grows

every year. There are more donors, but the gap keeps growing."

Gordon has just aired a series of television and radio spots aimed at

African Americans, a group with high rates of hypertension, diabetes,

and, as a result, a high rate of kidney failure. This campaign, which

ran during the past year, was funded by a $300,000 grant her agency

won from the state’s department of health and human services. She is

in the early stages of planning a media conference where she hopes to

gather television writers and critics to discuss accurate portrayals

of organ donation. She has devised a school curriculum on organ

donation, and is working on "Hip Hop for Life," a college tour. Her

latest initiative is the first ever podcast on organ donation.

Excited about the podcast, which began in April, Gordon says that

"I’ve been in communications for more than 20 years. Things change all

the time. There are new ways to get information to people, and we have

to use the best vehicles. In the old days it was newspapers and TV,

but now to be an effective communicator you have to look at new media.

There are so many more options."

She chose podcasts because they’re cheap, and they appeal to young

people. "I think we spent $500 on the first podcast," she says. "That

was for the sound editor. I taped the interviews, and he edited them."

She has published the podcasts on iTunes, the easily-searchable Apple

website that aggregates podcasts on myriad subjects. "It’s time

shifting," she says of the new technology. "People can listen to the

podcasts at any time, from anywhere." It is also easy to subscribe to

podcasts, and have them delivered to any E-mail inbox. There is no

cost to post podcasts on iTunes, and listeners pay nothing to listen

to them. An iTunes compatible MP3 player is not even needed. The files

can be listened to through any computer. But they can also be

downloaded – also at no cost – for even greater portability. There is

a link on the New Jersey Organ and Tissue Share website

(www.njshare.org) as well as a tutorial on how to use podcasts.

Gordon thinks that young people, heavy iPod users, will be drawn to

the podcasts, and, she says, "it’s easier to teach truth than to undo

old attitudes."

Aware that few people will listen to hours of information on organ

donation, Gordon is keeping the podcasts to 20 minutes. The first

podcast addresses minority organ donation, noting that 2/3 of the

people on the kidney waiting list are "people of color;" talks about a

kidney exchange program that matches married couples where one partner

in each union needs a kidney but is incompatible with his or her

spouse.

Next up for Gordon is video podcasts. Making the most of New Jersey

Organ and Tissue Share’s limited budget, she is hiring a film crew,

which will create footage to be used in both a video podcast and a

television program.

Among the information Gordon wants to convey is that saying yes to an

MVC clerk is not enough. "You need to talk about organ donation with

your family, too," she says. This is so because a driver’s license,

which links to a database showing whether consent for organ donation

has been given, may not be available when needed. The window of time

in which an organ can be harvested and transplanted is short. If

renewed life is to spring from death, there is little time for

discussion.

Insight Communication, also Issues Management LLC, 101 Poor Farm Road,

Princeton 08540; 609-252-1300; fax, 609-252-0123. Cindy Gordon,

managing partner. www.issuesllc.com

Where to Donate

Nationally, more than 91,000 people are waiting for the donation of an

organ, and 17 or 18 people die every day. Kidney patients make up

two-thirds of the national waiting list. Until recently, most

transplanted kidneys came from deceased donors, but now they are

outnumbered by donations from living donors. Two organizations cover

donations in New Jersey:

The Sharing Network Organ and Tissue Donation Services, 841 Mountain

Avenue, Springfield 07081. 800-SHARE-NJ. www.sharenj.org. Covering

northern and central New Jersey.

Gift of Life Donor Program, 2000 Hamilton Street, Suite 201,

Philadelphia 19103-3813. 888-DONORS-1 or 215-557-8090. Home page:

www.donors1.org. Covering southern New Jersey.

Although kidneys can be taken from deceased people at any hospital,

transplants in New Jersey can take place only at six certified medical

centers, including Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New

Brunswick and Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. The latter,

St. Barnabas, accepts "altruistic" living kidney donors, people with

two good kidneys who are not acquainted with someone on the waiting

list but who want to help someone. Four people have done this since

2004.

"The procedure is painful, and the donor will probably have more pain

than the recipient," explains Bernard Kaplan, pediatric nephrologist

at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. "There can be complications,

and people have died asa result of the procedure, but this is

extremely rare, and if the other kidney is well, the chances are that

the donor will live well."

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