Organ Transplants

Good morning, it’s Monday, Oct. 28, 2019.

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Wendy Marx

Wendy Marx, a native New Yorker, found personal love and professional fulfillment in my hometown of San Francisco. She also found hepatitis B out there — or, rather, it found her. It was a foe she would fight the rest of life.

Wendy was born in 1967, the same year that hepatitis B was identified. On Thanksgiving Day in 1989, the disease attacked her liver, leaving her in a coma. Her parents and brothers were told that, barring a miracle, she had only hours to live.

What ensued was a miracle, but it was also a tragedy: The death of a 9-year-old boy in a traffic accident meant the availability of a healthy liver. This is the central paradox of organ transplantation. Yet donor families do find some good comes from their unspeakable loss. In Wendy’s case, the gift did not last long enough. She took her last breaths on this date in 2003.

We have a donor!”

Facing despair in a San Francisco hospital, Wendy Marx’s family heard a doctor pronounce these momentous words — the ones they had been praying to hear. In 1989, some 13,000 organ transplantations were performed in this country. It was impressive, but it wasn’t enough. More than 18,000 Americans were on donor transplant waiting lists and each day five or six of them died.

When Wendy recovered, she and her brother Jeffrey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formed a nonprofit organization devoted to publicizing the need for more organ donors. Their efforts were aided by Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, a family friend. In 1990 the Wendy Marx Foundation for Organ Donor Awareness teamed up with the National Kidney Foundation to inaugurate the U.S. Transplant Games in Indianapolis.

Related imageSome 400 athletes participated that year. The 2020 Transplant Games will be held in the Meadowlands in New Jersey July 17-22 and will feature spirited competitions ranging from basketball and cycling to Texas Hold ’Em Poker and darts. “Dancing With the Scars” is another competition; so is singing (“Lyrics for Life”). And, as with the actual Olympics, swimming and track-and-field events will be front and center. Thousands of participants are expected to compete. It’s an uplifting celebration of life. Still, though, thousands of Americans remain on waiting lists.

The annual number of organ transplants in this country has tripled since Wendy Marx received her new liver in 1989, but the demand has grown even faster. As of last week – Oct. 24, to be exact — 29,847 transplants were performed in the United States. But another 73,903 people are  on waiting lists. Wendy Marx was on such a list when she took her last breaths. The hepatitis that destroyed her first liver returned and attacked the replacement organ. She was 36 years old.

Jeff Marx once described his sister as “a woman of passion and purpose.” I knew Wendy Marx and can attest to the truth of her brother’s elegy. But his words need not be the last words on this important subject. My hope is that we all become passionate and purposeful about organ donation.

Oct. 24, the date cited above by the United Network for Organ Sharing, is a meaningful one for me. On that day in 2016, one of my brothers succumbed to fast-moving pancreatic cancer. The only organ we could donate were his beautiful bright eyes. I filled out the donation forms myself, although I did so in a haze. I miss David Jefferson Cannon every day, but on some days, I think about the gift of sight he bequeathed to a stranger and smile through my tears.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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