published Friday, May 4th, 2012

Bill Frist aids Facebook organ donor drive

  • photo
    One of Facebook's newest additions is the ability to add a "Life Event" and note oneself as an organ donor. The user is then directed to a state website to register as an organ donor.
    Photo by Tracey Trumbull.
    enlarge photo

Poll
Are you an organ donor?

People waiting for organs

Georgia Tennessee

Kidneys 3,185 2,113

Heart 50 85

Lung 20 10

Liver 224 190

Pancreas 4 7

Kidney/Pancreas 82 9

Organ transplants

January 1988-January 2012

Georgia Tennessee

Kidneys 7,538 7,940

Heart 1,233 1,370

Lung 345 398

Liver 2,427 2,554

Pancreas 35 154

Kidney/Pancreas 485 467

Source: United Network for Organ Sharing

To sign up to be an organ donor

In Tennessee: www.donatelifetn.org

In Georgia: www.donatelifegeorgia.org

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist used to carry a handful of organ-donor cards with him, hoping that by passing them out, he might get a few people to donate their organs.

This week, the former Senate majority leader from Tennessee and heart transplant surgeon was involved in an effort that essentially passed out organ-donor cards to millions of people in one day.

On Tuesday, Facebook launched a feature allowing users to share their decision to be an organ donor and link them to state registries to sign up online.

"Now we can touch 20 million people in a period of several hours -- the power of that is exciting," Frist said.

The power of the Facebook feature was evident across the country by Tuesday afternoon, as thousands of new organ donors signed up on state registries.

In Tennessee, Donate Life Tennessee, the state registry, usually sees about six people sign up in a day, but on Tuesday 92 people signed up. On Wednesday, the number jumped to 129.

Georgia had similar numbers.

"I haven't been surprised at the response," Frist said. "We know the power of friend to friend, the neighborhood approach to understanding issues that you might not pay attention to otherwise. I've seen it again and again."

Frist said he worked with Facebook to develop the feature and decide how best to approach the issue.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg comes from a family of medical doctors and was closely involved in the process, Frist said.

ORGAN SHORTAGES

As a surgeon, Frist personally knows the anguish of patients waiting -- and dying -- because no organs are available.

In 1989, he wrote "Transplant: A Heart Surgeon's Account of the Life-and-Death Dramas of the New Medicine" and included a tear-away organ donor card in the book's jacket cover.

Knowing some of his patients would die before they received organs was "heart-wrenching," Frist said.

More than 114,000 people are waiting for organs in the United States, and an average of 18 people die a day because they haven't received organs.

In Tennessee, 2,400 people are on the waiting list and in Georgia there are 3,485. Most of those are for kidney transplants.

About 42 percent of adults in the United States have signed up to be an organ donor, but in Tennessee the number is only about 34 percent. Frist said his goal is to get the number above 50 percent.

"The potential supply for heart transplants is more than sufficient," he said. "No one should die waiting for a heart transplant."

BECOMING A DONOR

Signing up to donate is not complicated, but most people don't realize exactly how the process works in Tennessee, said Kim Hingers, with the Donate Life Tennessee registry.

People can sign up online by going to the Donate Life Tennessee website and filling out a form.

However, they also will need to check the donation box on their driver's license form the next time they renew their license, Hingers said, but it must be done every time. Just signing the back of your driver's license will not add you to the state's registry, Hingers said.

"We lose 4,000 donors a month because people don't realize they have to check the donor box every time they renew," Hingers said. "It's very frustrating."

Donate Life Tennessee is working with the Tennessee Department of Safety to change that requirement but hasn't completed it yet, she said.

Hingers and Jennifer Jenks, with Tennessee Donor Services -- nonprofit organ procurement organizations serving nearly 5.5 million people in Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky -- said it has been exciting to watch the response this week on Facebook.

"This has been enormous," Hingers said. "We are absolutely thrilled. This is something people across the nation have been talking about and they've gone and done it."

Jenks said the Facebook feature makes it easy to sign up because it links to state organ registries across the country. It also allows people to add the date they signed up and share that with their friends.

"I'm hoping we can make this a long-term thing; I don't think it will be just a fad," she said.

LONG-TERM CHANGES

Frist said he and Facebook COO Sandberg have remained in touch throughout the launch of the site's organ-donor feature. On Thursday, they discussed how they can help to sustain the increased awareness over a longer period, he said.

In the next two weeks, they will assess the trends of how and where people are signing up to be organ donors. From that data, they will decide what the next step should be, Frist said.

"This is all new ground for Facebook and new ground for those of us who are in the organ donation field," he said. "We want to be very sensitive to the personal issues, but social media and social networking have huge potential to improve health and reduce suffering. This is one example. People listen to what their friends are doing."

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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