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United Way of NNY sponsoring program about organ donation on Tuesday


WATERTOWN — As chief executive officer of United Way of Northern New York, Robert D. Gorman is used to helping people change their lives. With the help of an Olympian and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he hopes to spread the word on how lives can be saved.

Nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis will be in Watertown on Tuesday to encourage more north country residents to become organ donors. He will be joined by journalist Jeffrey Marx. They created the Wendy Marx Foundation 25 years ago in memory of Mr. Marx’s sister, who died waiting for a liver transplant.

The “Donate Life! Day” at Jefferson Community College is sponsored by United Way of Northern New York. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Marx will speak to the community at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Sturtz Auditorium about the importance of organ and tissue donation.

“The United Way urges people to give, volunteer and advocate,” Mr. Gorman said. “We’re doing all three when we encourage people to become organ donors.”

Mr. Gorman noted that most people don’t think about the services the agency’s nonprofits provide until they need those services.

“The same holds true with organ and tissue donation,” he said. “To ensure lifesaving organs and tissue are available tomorrow, people have to support the organ donation process today.”

That process is becoming easier, according to Rob Kochik, executive director of the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, which covers Northern New York and several other counties in the Finger Lakes and Central New York area. The nonprofit organization coordinates organ and tissue donations in its region, working with 38 hospitals and helping to coordinate transplants mainly at Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, and the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“We are thrilled that in Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address and in the budget that was approved, that he is supporting efforts to make it easier for New Yorkers to document their wish to be an organ donor,” Mr. Kochik said.

increasing enrollments

Mr. Kochik said there are about 600 people in New York state who die each year awaiting an organ. About 60 of those deaths are in the 20-county region served by his agency.

He said about 3 million New York residents have enrolled in the state’s organ donor registry and there’s about 15 million people in the state who could enroll. Donors need to be 18 or older. One person who donates organs can save up to eight lives.

Mr. Kochik said the percentage of people who have signed up on this state’s organ donor registry is low compared to other states.

“New York has lagged behind almost every other state,” he said. “We don’t think it has anything to do with New Yorkers being any less giving.” Instead, he said, it’s a matter of making people more aware of the issue and to make it easier to sign up.

Residents of Northern New York do well compared to the number of people statewide who have signed up for the registry, according to Karin Gaffney Christensen, spokeswoman for the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Mrs. Christensen said about 22 percent of New Yorkers are registered organ donors. In Jefferson County, 35 percent of residents 18 and older are registered donors. The figure is 34 percent in Lewis County and 24 percent in St. Lawrence County, according to Mrs. Christensen.

The spokeswoman said there were 32 kidney transplants performed last year at Upstate Medical University, 104 transplants (heart, kidney, liver, pancreas) at Strong Memorial Hospital, part of the University of Rochester Medical Center, and 1,670 transplants at facilities statewide.

Mrs. Christensen said that statewide, there are 11,000 patients awaiting transplants. At Upstate Medical, 217 are awaiting kidney transplants and 475 patients are awaiting transplants at Strong Memorial.

change in registry management

The way many state residents hear about the option to donate their organs is when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Last year, the state jump-started individuals’ serious thoughts about organ donation with Lauren’s Law. It requires people filling out DMV application forms to answer “yes” or “skip question” when asked whether they want to be an organ and tissue donor. Previously, the section was optional.

In 2009, the state passed a law that included registration for the state’s Donate Life Registry for organ and tissue donations to be included on voter enrollment forms.

New this year, Mr. Kochik said, will be a change in how the Donate Life Registry is managed.

“Instead of the registry being managed through the Department of Health and the DMV, it gave the opportunity to create a public/private partnership between the Department of Health and the organ procurement organizations and the tissue and eye banks in the state to manage the registry.”

The 2014-15 state budget allows for the transfer of administration of the state donor registry to a nonprofit organization, the New York Alliance for Donation, which has experience in facilitating organ, eye and tissue donation.

The alliance comprises organ and tissue recovery organizations throughout the state, health professionals and individuals whose lives have been affected by donation.

In a press release from the alliance, Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard N. Gottfried said the launch of a public-private partnership will upgrade and modernize the organ donation registry.

Mr. Kochik said, “We anticipate that by the end of this calendar year, there will be changes made to make it easier for people to enroll electronically.”

sparking communication

Events like the one on Tuesday at JCC, Mr. Kochik said, help to encourage individuals to share their organ-donation wishes with family members or to sign up for the registry.

He said a recent Gallop poll showed a majority of Americans support the concept of organ donation.

“We have been effective in increasing knowledge and awareness so that people are not misinformed about the option of donation,” Mr. Kochik said. “Now we want to make it easier for people to document their wish.”

He added, “Likewise, while we would like everyone to say ‘yes’ to donation, we know it’s also comforting for families to know what their loved one didn’t want to do. We certainly want to support those wishes as well.”

donate life month

Tuesday's event is co-sponsored by the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network and Westelcom.

April is National Donate Life Month, which was created by Donate Life America and its partner organizations in 2003. It features a month of local, regional and national activities to help encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors and to celebrate those who have saved lives through the gift of donation.

The details
WHAT: Olympic gold medal winner Carl Lewis and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Marx of the Wendy Marx Foundation will present a program encouraging more people to become organ and tissue donors.
WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Sturtz Auditorium at Jefferson Community College, Watertown
COST: Free and open to the public
OF NOTE: Golfers can support organ donation by participating in the fourth annual Ryan Converse Memorial Foundation Golf Tournament on Friday, June 13, at Highland Meadows Golf and Country Club, Watertown, and Watertown Golf Club.
Mr. Converse, son of Joseph J. and Vicki L. Converse, died in 2010 after being struck by a car near his home on Route 283. His organs were then donated.
At past tournaments, the foundation donated a total of about $25,000 to the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, USO Fort Drum and the Watertown Urban Mission’s critical needs program.
The cost of the tournament is $65 per person and includes a buffet-style dinner at the Elks Lodge, 728 Bradley St.
For more information and to register, go to the tournament’s website at ryanconvers
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