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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: End superstitions hindering organ donation

January 16, 2001

Their fears are twofold: One is that overeager transplant surgeons will pull the plug and harvest their organs before they're really dead. The other is if their bodies are not absolutely complete, they won't eventually be able to rise from the dead.

These superstitions discourage millions of the healthy from signing organ donor cards that would allow their hearts, lungs, kidneys, livers and other tissue to be reused after they're dead.

The results: At least one Californian dies every day while languishing on a transplant waiting list. More than 4,000 register for kidney transplants each year, but only about 1,200 such operations are performed. More than 1,500 Californians register for liver transplants each year but only about 400 get them. More than 400 are registered for heart transplants each year, but only about 200 receive them.

The waiting list for kidney transplants grows longer every year, because dialysis with artificial kidney machines can keep many patients alive by partially substituting for renal function, even if quality of life is poor.


The waiting lists for other organs grow, too, but not as much, because many die before a match can be found.

That's why a campaign against the most common superstitions hindering organ donation is so vital; it's also why the support that campaign is now getting from clergy of every major religion in California promises to be of great value.

Clergy cannot dispel anyone's fears that doctors might pull the plug on him too soon — fears not founded on any proven instances — but they can help with religious hesitations.

"It's difficult to overcome the fears and myths in our community," said Miguel Medina, president of the National Kidney Foundation's minority organ tissue transplant education program. "We need to impress on Hispanics in particular that organ donation is a very important gift of life."

Like African-Americans, Latinos make up about the same percentage among organ donors as in the general populace. Also like blacks, they are more prone to need transplants than other ethnic groups, in part because diet and other factors put them at greater than normal risk of damage from hypertension and diabetes — which often destroy kidneys and hearts.

Since transplants tend to work better and last longer when donors and recipients have similar ethnic and genetic backgrounds, the more minority donors, the more minority lives will be saved. But the numbers of donors are not rising, partly because of superstition.

Doctors and hospitals already publish reams of brochures and issue continual statements reassuring prospective donors no one's plug can be pulled until they are certifiably brain dead — and their next of kin permits organ donation to proceed.

Doctors can't speak about resurrection or the after-life. The clergy can.

"Organ donation is an act of love," the Rev. John Keese assures adherents to his Roman Catholic church, speaking for Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, the highest-ranking Catholic clergyman in California and the West. "Pope John Paul II has told us it is not only acceptable, but meritorious. It's a way of giving part of ourselves so others can live. It is rewarded in the hereafter."

In fact, organs from one person can save up to seven other lives. When tissue donations are added, one donor can save or improve the lives of 50 persons.

"Health and healing are very important parts of the ministry of Jesus," said the Rev. John Langfeldt, chief of the Presbyterian synod covering most of California and Hawaii. "The word we translate as ‘salvation' in the New Testament also translates as healing or wholeness. So we are called to promote the cause of health and our church calls for all our members to sign and carry organ donation cards."

Even that, of course, does not guarantee that organs can be donated when a person dies suddenly of accidental trauma, gunshot wounds or from a fall.

Next of kin still must approve, so willing donors are told to inform family members of their wishes, no matter how awkward the conversation."

"In the same way we make arrangements in our wills for the disposition of our material goods, we need to make arrangements for the disposition of our bodies," said the Rev. Albert Cohen, director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council. "We are called to take care of our neighbors."

Rabbis also remind Jews that although their religion encourages burial of intact bodies, saving lives takes precedence over anything else in Jewish law.

"It is the highest good," said Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, former president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. "So of course we encourage donation."

In short, there is no major denomination that now discourages organ donation. There are no rational grounds to fear an early pulling of the plug. It's time to end the fears — and the organ shortage they cause.

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