First, the good news. More than 20,000 people had organ transplants last year. Now, the bad news. Twice as many, more than 44,000 people, were still on the waiting list when 1998 ended. And the really tragic news: More than 4,300 people, an average of 12 per day, died while waiting for an organ transplant.
Could there be a better means than altruism for organ donation? A recent proposal from Pennsylvania plans to pay the relatives of organ donors $300 toward funeral expenses. Such a plan acknowledges, finally, that altruism isn't enough.
Hearing about that plan brought back memories of a college friend who was from Pennsylvania. Terri Mullin, a self-described "country girl from Pennsylvania," was a fantastic reporter at my college newspaper. But as good as she was, she never had a legitimate shot at an executive position on the paper. She had cystic fibrosis. The senior editors were worried because she was often in bad health, missing days at a time.
Because she acted as if she didn't have the disease, I wasn't surprised when she asked me if I could teach her how to play softball. Softball was the sport that everyone on the paper could play. Everyone, that is, except for Terri.
I really regretted that Terri and I never found a time for softball. The following autumn, she checked into the hospital for an extended stay.
Worried that she might be dying, several of us made the trip to the hospital to see her. Between coughs, she assured us that she would be back, soon. She later told me that she was happy to see me because I enjoyed her rants about animal rights groups who opposed medical testing on animals. She blamed those groups for the deaths of many of the "invisible victims" of diseases. A former poster child for cystic fibrosis, Terri had memorized the names of diseases that had been cured as a result of animal testing.
There she was, sick in the hospital, and she wanted to ... play softball! She asked me if I would still teach her how to play. I reluctantly agreed to do so after she got healthy.
She did return a few weeks later, upset because she knew that her long stay in the hospital had ruined her chances for a top spot on the paper. She was even more upset because I was hesitant to play softball with her.
Spring came and it was softball season. Terri seemed to be much healthier. One day, she just showed up at one of the games, without even a day of practice. There she was, trying to figure out how to hold the bat.
Before the game started, she came to me, nervous: "Coach, quick, teach me how to play." She took a couple of weak practice swings behind the batting cage. Suddenly, she was up next. She was frantic.
"What should I do?"
She was livid. "That's it? Swing? That's what you call coaching?"
She walked up to the plate. The pitcher tossed the world's slowest pitch right down the middle. Terri did swing; late, badly. Strike one. Another pitch, a swing, and contact! If it had been a movie, she would have hit a home run or a triple. Instead, she hit a weak dribbler that dropped right in front of home plate.
I had forgotten to teach her one other thing:
Glaring at me and holding the bat the whole way, she lumbered down to first base. She was halfway there when the ball arrived.
She played in several other games, even getting a "hit" in an intrasquad game. She had managed to actually hit the ball past the pitcher and directly to me at shortstop. Although I could have outrun her to first base, I ended up tossing the ball at least 10 yards over the first baseman's head. I will never forget the big grin on Terri's face later as she awkwardly leaned off second, taunting me for making the error: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, play shortstop."
That is my best memory of my three years of working with her. About two years later, I happened to see her picture as I was thumbing through the Boston Globe. It was in the obituary section. Shortly after she had started working at the Boston Globe, she had taken a leave of absence. She had died in England, apparently waiting for a transplant that never came. I can't help thinking that Terri might be alive today if we didn't rely solely on voluntary organ donations.
There are numerous appeals to get more people to sign up to become organ donors. Sporting events are held to raise donor awareness. Celebrities, including Michael Jordan, have acted as spokespeople for the cause. The U.S. Post Office has issued an "organ donation" stamp to raise awareness. But the reality is that during Donor Awareness Week, observed in late April, at least 80 people will die while waiting for an organ. On National Donor Day, observed on February 13, another dozen people will die while waiting. Those efforts will continue to fail as long as we continue to rely on altruism as the sole motivation for organ donations.
The National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 explicitly prohibits the purchase or sale of internal organs. It is time to repeal that law. The free market isn't a utopia: The rich may still get the "best" organs, but an increased supply of organs would benefit everyone.