Organ donors have a friend in Uncle Sam

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Melina Mara/twp - Twp)
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By Joe Davidson
Friday, February 12, 2010

Eighteen people will die in the United States today waiting for an organ transplant.

In the next week, the number will grow to almost 130. And a month from now, nearly 560 will be dead because they could not wait for a kidney or a liver or another organ.

That's the stark arithmetic applied to the 6,700 patients who died while waiting for an organ transplant in 2008, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The wait list is so long because too few cadaver organs are available and too few people among the living are able or willing to donate. But Uncle Sam is doing his part to encourage potential donors by allowing federal employees 30 days of paid leave for donation testing, surgery and recuperation.

The Organ Donor Leave Act, enacted in 1999, gives federal organ donors what amounts to six weeks off, time that is not counted against other sick days or vacation. Before the bill passed, organ donors had seven days of leave. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) sponsored the bill.

As the 20th century drew to a close, transplantation became safer, more efficient and more widely available.

"Medical technology and improved surgical techniques have greatly increased the number of individuals whose lives can be saved or dramatically improved by transplanting healthy organs from one person to a person in need," said a 1999 House report on the legislation. "It is important that Congress encourage citizens to consider becoming organ donors."

I'll say amen to that, because a federal employee, Judy Payne, donated a kidney to my wife, Bernardine Watson, in September. Many donors provide a lifesaving organ to a friend or loved one. Others, like Payne, simply want to help save someone's life by providing an organ to whomever the team at a hospital chooses.

And through a program developed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Payne's gift extended beyond my wife. It had a domino effect: It resulted in my giving a kidney to a stranger. I wanted to give mine directly to Dine, but our compatibility does not extend to blood and tissue type. The program allows an altruistic donor to have an impact on more people than the immediate recipient. "Their gift sets off this cascade of transplants that wouldn't otherwise occur," said Robert Montgomery, chief of the Hopkins transplantation division.

The need for donors "is very crucial," he added. More than 105,000 people are awaiting a transplant, and almost 80 percent of them are kidney patients, according to HHS.

Montgomery said 30-day leave programs for federal employees do make a difference. The Office of Personnel Management does not keep government-wide data on employees who have taken organ donor leave. The District and some states, including Maryland and Virginia, have similar programs for their employees, according to the National Kidney Foundation. With the paid time and minimally invasive techniques that have a relatively minor impact on a donor's body, "that's a real positive incentive," he said.

Though donation has a temporary physical effect on donors, the positive effect lasts much longer. That was clear from the comments of six federal organ donors we briefly profile on this page. They gave of themselves in a most unselfish way.

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