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State’s sorry record on organ donations sentences people to an avoidable death

Despite the helpful efforts of Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs, New York State is doing a terrible job of responding to the desperate, life-giving need for organ donors.

It’s embarrassing that the percentage of New Yorkers registered as organ donors is, in a word, anemic. With just 26 percent of adults registered as donors, the state posts worse results that any registry but Puerto Rico’s. Erie and Niagara counties do notably better, with registration rates of 36 and 41 percent, respectively, but clearly have room for improvement.

Now a Western New Yorker who has unfortunate first-hand experience with the state’s transplant defiencies has joined the work of improving the state’s woeful performance. Tom Jasinski has founded an organization called One8Fifty to increase the number of registered organ donors.

The name refers to the mantra that organs from one donor can save the lives of up to eight people, and the tissue and eyes from the same person can aid as many as 50 others. “People don’t fully understand the dynamics of transplantation, how many lives can be helped,” Jasinski said.

Jasinski does understand. He could well have died had he not received a kidney transplant from his new wife’s cousin. Many other New Yorkers aren’t so lucky. The state has the second-longest list of patients waiting for an organ: more than 10,000.

Nearly 1,000 people died or became too sick for a transplant while they waited last year. “There are so many barriers,” said Aisha Tator, executive director of the New York Alliance for Donation. “We are moving a mountain in New York, but we are also showing results.”

That’s the good news, though not good enough for anyone to be satisfied. On the hopeful side, a new law will allow New Yorkers to register to donate on applications for coverage in the state’s health insurance exchange. Another bill, awaiting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature, would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to enroll in the registry, although giving their parents authority to rescind the donation if death occurs before the potential donor turns 18.

Over the past two years, legislators have also reformed and extended laws that prohibit a driver’s license application from being processed unless the organ donation section is filled out – either agreeing or disagreeing. The answer doesn’t matter, as long as one is given.

In Erie County last year Jacobs’ focus on organ donation in the Auto Bureau added thousands of names to the donor registry.

But more needs to be done, with the goal – as Tator said – of making registration a “cultural norm,” like wearing a bicycle helmet or fastening a seat belt. Indeed, it should be that failure to register becomes socially unacceptable.

Many tools are available to aid in that effort. Prominent among them are social media. But churches, schools, PTAs, labor unions and elected officials all can help. Parents can set an example for their children. Doctors and hospitals should play a role.

There are obstacles. Some are cultural. Some are based on fear, mainly that death might be encouraged or hastened in an effort to harvest someone’s organs. But for the most part, these are bogeymen and fallacies. They can be overcome through education that includes a clear understanding that any one of us may someday be in Jasinski’s shoes: desperately waiting for a transplant, with the only hope being enough donors to satisfy the never-ending cycle of need.