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Viewpoints: New law will help increase organ donations in New York

By Aisha Tator

When Sam Messina experienced the unexpected and tragic loss of his son, Matthew, he and his wife were left with the decision of whether to donate Matthew’s organs. Although they were confident that giving the gift of life to someone else is what Matthew would have wanted, many parents are unable to make that decision with such certainty during the most difficult time of their lives.

According to the New York Alliance for Donation, while the national average of designated donors is approximately 54 percent, only 28 percent of New Yorkers have joined the New York State Donate Life Organ and Tissue Donor Registry, placing it in 51st place out of the 52 registries in the United States, which includes Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

What makes matters worse is that New York has the third-longest list of patients waiting to receive an organ donation. As a result, every 16 hours one New Yorker dies waiting for an organ transplant.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature recognize that organ scarcity is a public health crisis and have worked diligently to make sure every New Yorker in need of a transplant receives one. Lawmakers have taken significant steps to increase enrollment in the New York State Donate Life Registry, including Lauren’s Law. It mandates that the Department of Motor Vehicles ask individuals applying for a driver’s license if they want to sign up to be an organ donor. Individuals can select either “yes” or “skip this question.”

On Feb. 14, another impactful law came into effect that enables 16- and 17-year-olds to express their desire to become lifesaving donors. Prior to this law, drivers were first presented with the opportunity to register in the Donate Life Registry when they received their driver’s permit at age 16, but they were unable to join the registry. The DMV’s automatic renewal policies and procedures did not present the opportunity to young drivers until they were in their mid-20s. Now, thousands will be given the opportunity to join.

In my years of working in the donation community, I have encountered countless young New Yorkers who feel strongly that organ, tissue and eye donation is an important community responsibility.

April Rowley, who tragically lost her son, Thomas, in November, was unbelievably proud when she learned after he passed that he was a registered organ donor. It brought her comfort knowing that someone else would now be able to see the world through his eyes.

Darlene Aymerich, another parent of an organ donor and a living organ donor herself, didn’t hesitate when she was left with the decision of whether to donate the organs of her daughter, Shannon, who tragically lost her life in a car accident. After Darlene donated a kidney to her brother, Darlene recalls Shannon saying that she wanted to be an organ donor someday and save lives, too.

Sam, April and Darlene, along with most parents of organ donors, will say that giving another family the gift of life was a big part of helping their entire families move through the grieving process, and that they were fortunate to have comfort in knowing they abided by their children’s wishes.

Sadly, there are many parents who do not feel with great certainty that donating their child’s organs is what the child would have wanted. All parents want to know that they are doing what is best for their child. Although parents and legal guardians will ultimately be left to make the final determination under this new law, having a child’s documented intent to donate will give parents comfort that they are making the right decision.

I encourage parents and teens to show love to families who truly need it by having these important end-of-life conversations and joining the New York State Donate Life Registry. Please consider making a lifesaving donation. It takes only one organ donor to drastically impact and save the lives of up to eight people.

Aisha Tator is executive director of the nonprofit New York Alliance for Donation.

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