NJ Steps Up Efforts to Expand Pool of Organ Donors

Beth Fitzgerald | April 24, 2012 | Health Care
New law targets state employees for organ and tissue donations during ‘Donate Life Month’

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie tours Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
With his new heart, transplant patient Richard Bohan swims 10 miles a week, finishing 3,000 yards yesterday morning before joining the governor and transplant advocates at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center to help promote the need for more organ donations in New Jersey.

For every success story like Bohan, there is a struggle to help the people who need transplants. In New Jersey, their numbers — nearly 5,000 are currently waiting — exceed available donors.

About 32 percent of New Jersey adults are registered organ donors, compared with 42 percent nationwide. Advocates hope to narrow that gap through better public education about the need for more organ donors.

On Monday Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill that designates April “Donate Life Month” during a ceremony and tour at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, home to the nation’s third largest heart transplant program.

The law directs the Treasury department to put an organ donor message on paychecks of state workers and encourages all businesses that receive state contracts to bring the organ donor message to their employees.

Dr. Mark J. Zucker leads the heart transplant program at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, which also performs lung, liver, and pancreas transplant operations.

New Jersey ranks 41 nationwide for organ donor participation, and Zucker said he and other organ donor advocates are puzzled why New Jersey doesn’t rank higher.

The solution most likely isn’t a big media and advertising campaign to encourage more people to sign up, but for organ recipients to speak to groups in their community and urge their neighbors to become organ donors. “We need to actively educate teenagers, parents and employees on a repeated basis,” Zucker said.

Christie, who was born at Newark Beth Israel, signed the bill in an auditorium packed with hospital employees, former patients who had transplant operations at the medical center, and the relatives of individuals whose organs were donated to others.

“Being an organ donor is one of the most profound gifts to give someone else — a chance at a new, healthy life,” Christie said.

Getting the word out is key, the advocates said. “We need to have more education of the public about how many people are on the waiting list and how many people unfortunately die for lack of a donor,” said Betsy Ryan, president of the New Jersey Hospital Association.

Bohan, 61, is among the lucky ones. He received his new heart in 2009 and admitted to worries about the transplant before joining a support group. “I saw how healthy [the transplant patients] were. It gave me hope. And right now I feel good.”

Raymond Martinez, chief administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), said he just finished touring all the state motor vehicle offices to impress on the staff the importance of educating the public about becoming an organ donor.

“That is part of their routine — to ask all of our customers to register,” Martinez said. Since 2006, when motor vehicle began working closely with the NJ Sharing Network and Gift of Life, MVC has added 2.5 million people to the organ donor registry. Martinez said 98 percent of New Jerseyans who register as organ donors do so through motor vehicle.

Individuals can also register at the websites of NJ Sharing Network and Gift of Life, which are federally funded, state-certified non-profit organizations responsible for the recovery and placement of donated organs. NJ Sharing Network serves central and northern New Jersey, while Gift of Life is responsible for seven southern counties. In addition to registering when visiting a motor vehicle office in person, donors can register at the agency’s website.

According to the NJ Sharing Network, one donor can save up to eight lives. Organs that can be transplanted are the heart, kidneys, liver, lung, pancreas and intestine. The greatest need is for kidney transplants. In New Jersey, that wait list is 3,920 long. Another 560 people are waiting for a liver transplant, 36 need a pancreas donor, and 28 need a lung transplant.

Anita Fiddemon’s grandson was shot and killed in Newark in 2008. Jaamal Perry was 21, and his family agreed to donate his organs. It was not a difficult decision, Fiddemon said. “My daughter is on dialysis right now, and I believe if I can help somebody, then in return, somebody might turn around and help me. My daughter will need a kidney in the future.”