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-recovery 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.”