Facebook Organ Donation Option Deserves Your 'Like'

ByJacob Cogan

I often feel that I am living an indefensible paradox. I work as a member of an organ procurement team, retrieving donor hearts and lungs for patients awaiting transplants; but I am not a registered organ donor myself. In principle, I would absolutely donate my organs if the opportunity presented itself. It is a wonderful, priceless gift to give; and I can testify first-hand that there are dedicated, first-rate medical professionals working around the clock to make the process of obtaining organs from donors and transplanting them into recipients both respectful, and efficient, to the point of being routine. In practice, however, I have still not taken the two minutes it would require to sign onto donatelife.net and register myself. It is a choice I find difficult to explain, and one that has suddenly become even harder to justify due to the actions of, surprisingly, Facebook.

There is certainly anonymity in numbers, and I am certainly not the only potential but unregistered donor out there. There is a shortage of organ donors in this country, to the extent that it can reasonably be called a crisis. As of March, 2012, over 113,000 Americans are awaiting organ transplants, including 1,800 children. Last year, 14,000 donors helped make 28,500 transplants possible. Yet despite all these successful operations, approximately 75% of patients waiting for a transplant last year did not receive one. As a result, 18 candidates died every day while waiting for an organ.

Unlike the donor organs required for transplant surgery, the miracles made possible by organ transplants are not in short supply. The recipient of the world’s first pediatric heart transplant at the age of 4 is still alive today, 28 years and two new hearts later. The New York Times recently reported on how one man’s decision to donate a kidney to a stranger set in motion a record-setting chain of kidney “exchanges”, resulting in 30 lives being saved by new kidneys. Just weeks ago, an elderly man in my building mentioned to me that he has received four cornea transplants, two of which occurred during the past several years in which we have periodically run into one another in the elevator. I would have never noticed had he not mentioned something.

While the reality of the donor crisis is evident, the solution is elusive. Why aren’t more people registered as donors? In my case, I am hampered by the fact that signing up to donate your organs necessitates grappling with your mortality. This is a conversation that is difficult to have with yourself, and there is solace derived from declining to sign away your most fundamental property, even if it is irrational. 

At the same time, there are likely many people who would like to donate, but are not registered because of any number of reasons. Maybe they don’t know there is a shortage; maybe they don’t know how to register; maybe they assume that their viable organs will be donated even if they don’t make their wishes explicit. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that, as an “opt-in” organ donation system, we are relying on the altruism of our citizens to agree to donate organs to those in need. If a person does not explicitly make their wish to donate clear, it is unlikely that their grieving family members will make that assumption for them. Thus, the problem remains: how do we get more people to register themselves as organ donors?

An unexpected answer may be via Facebook. Today, Facebook added a feature giving users the option of publicisizing the fact that you’re an organ donor to your Facebook timeline, as well as adding details about the where, when, and why behind your choice to register. Facebook has an unparalleled ability to reach and connect millions upon millions of people; many, I’m sure, would admit to there being days where they check their Facebook, but not the newspaper. And with news feeds lighting up over the next few days with stories of which of your friends are organ donors, it will be interesting and exciting to see how many more registered donors there are by this time next week.

What do you think about this organ donation initiative by Facebook? Do you feel an incentive to become a donor now that you didn’t yesterday? If not, what are your reservations? Is our “opt-in” donation system inherently flawed?