Gov. Chris Christie has agreed to be an organ donor when he dies. He wants other New Jerseyans to make the same pledge.
New Jersey ranks just 40th in country in the percentage of residents who are registered donors, but bolstered state efforts to inform residents about donation options may be having an impact.
Last year, a total of 718,000 New Jersey motorists who received or renewed their licenses volunteered to be donors, up from 639,000 in 2011.
Christie said he hoped to see that number climb again this year, as he declared April to be Donate Life Month.
“I would encourage anybody out there who hasn’t done it, to do it,” Christie said. “I think it’s incredibly important for saving lives.”
Christie, a registered donor, said he’s talked with doctors who have saved lives by performing organ transplants as well as family members of donors who “have seen their loved ones live on through organ donation.”
“It’s the greatest, most invaluable gift that any one of us can give to a loved one or a stranger,” Christie said.
The state has about 5,000 residents in need of organ donations, health officials say.
Christie signed a billlast year that requires the state government to include information on organ and tissue donation with state worker paychecks every April. Advocates say the prominence given the issue by the governor contributed to last year's increase in donors.
Residents have been able to volunteer to be organ donors through driver’s license renewals since 2004, when New Jersey switched to digital licenses.
State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd thanked Christie for “lending his celebrity to the issue.”
O’Dowd added that minority residents are disproportionately affected by illnesses like diabetes that can increase the need for donations, noting that minority residents comprise 60 percent of those waiting for donations.
There are a number of reasons the lower rate of minority residents participating in the donor program , representing just 36 percent of donors. Among factors cited by researchers are lack of access to healthcare, a lack of cultural history or familiarity with organ donation, and a belief that the organ-allocation system is inequitable.
There has been recent progress in this area, according to state officials. Some regional offices serving areas with large minority populations have seen a sharper increase in volunteers, including a 30 percent increase in Newark from 2011 to 2012.
Officials with the New Jersey Sharing Network, the nonprofit that oversees the state’s donation efforts, credit state officials with aiding the campaign.
The percent of residents applying for drivers’ licenses or license renewals who agreed to be donors rose from 31 percent of applicants in 2011 to 34.3 percent in 2012, according to Elisse Glennon, the network's executive director.
In addition, pamphlets and posters with donation information are now available at all Motor Vehicle Commission offices.
Glennon said the reasons people give for not signing up range from superstition that volunteering will lead to an accident to fear that their organ-donation status will affect the care they receive.
“Obviously, (this) couldn’t be further from the truth,” Glennon said, adding that medical donation teams do not get involved until a person has been declared dead.
Glennon said that some cultures do not have a history or familiarity with organ donation, which may be a reason why more-diverse states have lower donation rates.
While New Jersey residents are well below the national average in registering as organ donors, another factor brings the state closer to the average in actual donation rates. Once a person has been fatally injured, hospital staff may ask his or her next of kin whether a donation can occur. The state is near the national average in the percent of family members who consent to donations once a patient has died, Glennon said.
Nationally, there were 28,000 organ transplants and 1 million tissue transplants last year.