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Organ, tissue and eye donations: gifts of hope and healing

Organ, tissue and eye donations are gifts that provide healing and a chance for continued and improved life to those in need of transplantation. More than 2 million Minnesotans are registered to give life through donation by checking "donor" on their licenses or registering online. I honor what their willingness to help someone they may never meet represents — the very best in humanity. While this generosity is saving lives every day, there are another 2 million Minnesotans who have not registered. What can we do to persuade them to spend the five minutes it takes to donate life?

In 2010, more than 28,000 men, women and children in the United States received a life-saving organ transplant. For these individuals, a transplant granted them the opportunity to enjoy time with their families, return to work or school and to live a full life. However, they represent just one-fourth of the more than 112,000 people nationwide in need of transplants. In Minnesota, nearly 3,000 people are waiting. We can help these hopeful people by increasing the number of people who are registered and committed to donation.

Turning loss into hope
While we often read about how a donated organ has saved the life of someone in our community, I want readers to understand that organ donation can provide hope and healing for the families of donors as well. I know this from experience.

On Thanksgiving weekend 11 years ago, we lost our almost 21-year-old daughter, Rachel, to a drunk driver. Thanks to incredibly skilled emergency responders and Hennepin County Medical Center nurses and doctors, she was able to be a donor. With the help of a LifeSource counselor, my wife, Nancy Gaschott, and I understood the importance of this decision and the potential to save other lives, when we knew we could never have our Rachel back. On Rachel's behalf, we made the decision to sign the forms to donate and then returned to face our shattered world.

Mark Ritchie, Rachel Ritchie, and Nancy Gaschott
Courtesy of Mark Ritchie
Mark Ritchie, Rachel Ritchie, and Nancy Gaschott

A few months after the accident, when I was still in the "impossible to face life again" frame of mind, a letter arrived from LifeSource. I did not open it right away, because I didn't want any more reminders. When I finally did, the envelope contained a letter describing all the people whose lives had been saved or incredibly enhanced by Rachel's donations. The most powerful news was that Rachel's heart was now beating inside a young girl, just a few years younger than Rachel, who also deeply loved animals.

Rachel had a heart so big it could hold every living thing within miles, and now that unstoppable force was giving life to another young girl. Reading and re-reading this letter began to melt the ice that had frozen over my own heart. Rachel's donation of life was beginning to give me my life back. Rachel was our only child and we would never have her back — but her gift helped us come back to living.

Minnesota needs more registered donors
LifeSource, the nonprofit organization dedicated to saving lives through organ and tissue donation in Minnesota, leads public education programs that provide information to help people in our communities make an informed decision about donation. These initiatives include high-school and driver's education, community outreach, events and media relations. As a result of these activities and our culture of generosity and civic stewardship, 60 percent of Minnesotans are registered donors, compared to the national average of 42 percent.

But we can do more. While six in 10 Minnesotans have joined the state donor registry, we are far from the top. In fact, in the Upper Northwest more than 70 percent of adults are registered as donors in four states: Alaska, Montana, Washington and Oregon. With more education about donation, we can increase the number of registered donors in our state — saving more lives and restoring more shattered families as a result.

"You and $2" can save lives
In 2011, the state's legislators unanimously passed a law to ensure that resources are available to support education about organ, tissue and eye donation. Beginning Jan. 1, 2012, drivers can contribute $2 when they apply for or renew their driver's licenses or ID cards. LifeSource and the State of Minnesota Department of Public Safety collaborated with the House, Senate and governor's office on the requirements and passage of HF 808/SF 892. Additionally, dedicated individuals who have been impacted by donation and transplantation shared their personal experiences with elected officials.

Known as "You and $2," the program provides Minnesotans the opportunity to support organ and tissue donation and was modeled after successful programs in other states. Our hope is that "You and $2" will increase community support for donation and save more lives.

Make the decision to donate life
About a week after Rachel's death, a letter arrived from the Department of Vehicle Services. We tore it open to find Rachel's new driver's license. There on the front, in all capital letters, was the word DONOR — Rachel had registered when she renewed her license the week before. Knowing that these were her wishes — to donate life — made such a big difference to us.

So please, the next time you renew your license, say, "yes and yes!" First, check the box and tell the world you want to be a donor. Second, please take the opportunity to contribute $2 to support education that will increase donations throughout the state. It just takes you to save lives.

Mark Ritchie is Minnesota's secretary of state. He is a member of the LifeSource board of directors.

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Comments (3)

I agree 100%: I am listed as a donor on my DL, and I have left written instructions on this matter with several friends and relatives.

May I add one more suggestion? People may also wish to consider being a bone marrow donor, and can learn more about this process by visiting marrow.org.

#1 fact: Bone marrow donation is a living donation (you don't need to die before you can donate). How cool is that?!?!?!

Your story about Organ Donation highlighted the tragic shortage of human organs for transplant operations.

There are now over 112,000 people on the National Transplant Waiting List, with over 50% of these people dying before they get a transplant. Most of these deaths are needless. Americans bury or cremate 20,000 transplantable organs every year.

There is a simple way to put a big dent in the organ shortage – give donated organs first to people who have agreed to donate their own organs when they die.

Giving organs first to organ donors will convince more people to register as organ donors. It will also make the organ allocation system fairer. Everyone who is willing to receive should be willing to give.

Anyone who wants to donate their organs to others who have agreed to donate theirs can join LifeSharers. LifeSharers is a non-profit network of organ donors who agree to offer their organs first to other organ donors when they die. Membership is free at www.lifesharers.org or by calling
1-888-ORGAN88. There is no age limit, parents can enroll their minor children, and no one is excluded due to any pre-existing medical condition. LifeSharers has over 14,800 members as of this writing, including 249 members in Minnesota.

Please contact me - Dave Undis, Executive Director of LifeSharers - if your readers would like to learn more about our innovative approach to increasing the number of organ donors. I can arrange interviews with some of our local members if you're interested. My email address is daveundis@lifesharers.org. My phone number is 615-351-8622.

Two years ago tomorrow, as I finished opening gifts with my family on Christmas Day I received a call telling me that I had a donated kidney waiting for me! This was a complete surprise as I had not yet been waiting a year, I had been told to expect a wait of 5 to 7 years. This kidney was a wonderful match and I have enjoyed life to the fullest since with no being tied to dialysis or suffering the many side effects of kidney failure. A family gave me the unltimate gift of a normal life. I cannot describe what this has meant to me and my family. Please,think about being an organ donor and tell your family. Merry Christmas