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Saving Grace

by C.J. Mittica

Almost everyone agrees that organ donation is a good idea—so how come New Jersey has such a shortage of registered donors?

Curtis Gano was going to be just fine. That’s what the medics concluded when they arrived at the scene on Route 70 and Springdale Road, where the 16-year-old had been struck by a van as he tried to cross on foot. Though unconscious, he had only suffered a broken left leg and some visible scrapes and bruising. On that warm July night in 1987, the medics prepared to load him into the ambulance.

But then Gano stopped breathing. The Cherry Hill High School East student was rushed to Cooper University Hospital, where it was determined that swelling had occurred at the base of his brain, cutting off the flow of oxygen. Two days later, he was brain dead.

Though overcome with grief, Vivian and Tom Gano decided to donate their son’s organs. They knew immediately that it was the right choice.

“You knew that it wasn’t over. A part of him was living on,” Tom Gano says of the decision they made nearly 25 years ago. “And you knew you had done something. People talk about a legacy. Do you have a legacy? My son saved four lives.”

Back in 1987, the Ganos made a gut decision. With the enactment of the New Jersey Hero Act in 2008, there is far less ambiguity. By signing up through the Motor Vehicle Commission or online, South Jersey residents can become registered organ donors—a designation that (when medically possible) legally must be honored.

As important as the Hero Act is, its recent enactment is also a symbol of just how far behind New Jersey lags when it comes to organ transplantation policies. While there are 2.1 million registered organ donors in the state, New Jersey ranks 40th among states in terms of population percentage. Meanwhile, there are 4,700 people in New Jersey currently waiting for life-saving transplants.

The major problem is that, for years, the state lacked an effective donor registry. “For a while, New Jersey was giving people the opportunity to put the donor designation on their license,” says John Green, director of community relations for the Gift of Life Donor Program, which identifies potential donors and coordinates organ transplants. “However, there was no way for anyone to access that information.”

The oversight was remedied with the online registry created by the Hero Act, legislation championed by New Jersey Sen. Richard Codey. In addition, the switch to digital driver’s licenses in 2004 allowed the organ donor designation to be printed right on the license. And, the state has revamped its computer system so that the data can be sorted and accessed easily.

With bureaucratic hurdles out of the way, Gift of Life is making a major push for donors in South Jersey, with the goal of converting 75 percent of the population to registered donors. Already this year, an additional 35,000 people in South Jersey have signed on. The increase comes at a critical time for sick patients, who are experiencing longer wait times on the transplant list as more people become eligible for transplantation.

The next step is to overcome people’s natural inertia. “Everybody thinks organ donation is a great idea,” says John Browne, a Haddonfield resident who received a liver transplant six years ago after being diagnosed with cancer—but they don’t always do anything about it. Adds Gano, “No one talks about it. It’s one of those things, [people think] never fits in their conversation.”

Getting people to talk about organ donation is the goal of various volunteer groups. The South Jersey Coalition on Organ and Tissue Donation sent its education committee to speak with more than 20,000 area students last year, spending 123 days teaching young people about the realities and importance of organ donation. When organ recipients and do­nors’ family members speak side by side about the organ donation phenomenon, the impact can be powerful. When Gano attends such educational events, he brings a photo of his son to drive his story home—a photo that has been touched by 50,000-plus students over 20 years of talks. Says the 69-year-old, “It’s really changed over the years, from they didn’t know anything about organ donation to now, kids know. They don’t even question the fact that you should do it.”

Even after donors register, experts re­commend having a short conversation with your family to make sure your wish to become an organ donor is known. A simple talk can help ease some of the myths about organ donation, such as the notion that doctors might not try as hard to save a person’s life if they are an organ donor. It can also help them understand the donor’s motivation: to give others a second chance —and to salvage some good from the worst of tragedies. “Donors are truly the heroes of the organ donation story,” Browne says.

Gail Clegg knows that well. In 2008, her son Sean was killed by a bus while he was out riding his bike. When the time came for the Tabernacle resident and her husband to consider organ donation, she didn’t think twice. Sean’s heart, right lung, two kidneys, liver and pancreas all went to patients on the transplant waiting list, (his corneas even went to Egypt). Most famously, his heart went to a 28-year-old New Jersey woman who 16 months later gave birth to twins, the first such recorded instance. “It gives you something to hold onto,” says Clegg, who is called “mom” and “grandmom” by Sean’s organ recipients. “It makes you feel good.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4 (July, 2011).
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