Op-Ed: Spreading awareness of the greatest gift

NEW YORK (JTA) — Nothing should surprise the medical staff of a big hospital, but last July the Hadassah Medical Center had an extraordinary 48-hour period in which surgical teams performed two heart and three kidney transplants. The most dramatic case was that of a 42-year-old mother of six who had been living for a year with an artificial heart and who finally had a human donor.

As a nurse, nothing is more remarkable to me than how far organ transplantation has come just during the course of my professional career.

When I was in nursing school, kidney transplantation was in its infancy and the first drugs to treat acute rejection were being introduced. Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s first successful heart transplant was still in the future.

But as far as organ transplantation has come, there is still work to be done. Even that extraordinary two-day period at the Hadassah Medical Center suggests challenge as much as achievement. The surge or dearth of healthy organs on any given day points up the uneven pace of donations.

The statistics, likewise, tell two stories. In 2008, there were 28,000 organ transplants in the United States. Some 16,000 involved kidneys — an impressive number until you compare it to the 80,000 Americans on waiting lists for kidneys. Many of them will die waiting.

Our medical expertise is running faster than our ability to sign up donors — both living donors for kidneys and bone marrow, and people who formally register to be postmortem donors. It’s not for lack of generosity.

Every organ donor is a tribute to the most generous instincts of the human spirit. But to be a donor, one needs one more characteristic: awareness.

Millions of generous people are not aware. Some avoid thinking about the issue. Others resist becoming donors out of a traditional mind-set they believe is rooted in religion, even though religious authorities from virtually every denomination and every faith have endorsed the life-giving practice of organ donation.

Hadassah, alone and in partnership with other health-oriented organizations, has made a priority of awareness. For 10 years we have sponsored educational programs on the importance of organ donations. We do this not only in our chapters but also as outreach to the wider Jewish community and the general public. We also have done tissue typing for potential bone marrow donors at our annual conventions.

Every culture reserves a special place of honor for lifesavers, and that is exactly what donating an organ makes you. According to Jewish tradition, whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.

In fact, saving one life by donating an organ may indirectly save others.

Increasing the voluntary donor pool would go a long way toward ending illegal trafficking in human organs. This criminal trafficking has not spared the Jewish community. Many of us have been shocked in recent months over news reports of individual Jews involved in the practice.

Paid donors are typically people from poor countries who give up a kidney or part of their liver under substandard surgical conditions and with little or none of the post-operative attention they need. Those who trade in human organs exploit not only the poor but also the sick — those willing to pay anything to save the life of a loved one.

Even if we cannot solve the problem of human greed, we can strike a blow at one of its outlets by dramatically increasing the voluntary donor pool. So if you haven’t thought about becoming an organ donor, now is a good time to start.

If you want more information, or if you have any hesitation, a world of information is waiting for you. Two especially good Web sites that answer virtually any question you can imagine are those of the Mayo Clinic and of the New York Organ Donor Network.

The science to save lives is in place and improving every day, and the world has plenty of generous people. It’s up to all of us to make sure that awareness matches generosity.

(Nancy Falchuk is national president of Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.)

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