HOUMA,LA—Louisiana now ranks first in the nation for the number of people who agreed to become organ donors when registering for their driver's license, according to Donate Life America.
More than 64 percent of residents obtaining drivers' licenses and state IDs in Louisiana said yes when asked if they would like to register as an organ-and-tissue donor, according to Jeanette Slakey, executive director of the Legacy Donor Foundation. That's nearly twice the national rate of 38 percent.
"If you have the ability to donate and save someone's life, it's a blessing to you," said James Charles, a former principal of Ellender High School and Gibson Elementary School. "It saves lives. It extends lives."
Charles, 68, counts himself among those whose lives were extended by organ donation. After diabetes and high blood pressure caused kidney failure, Charles had to undertake four-hour dialysis treatments three days a week to have his blood filtered.
"You can't stay on dialysis very long," Charles said.
He was put on an organ-donor list, and six months later, in February 2008, his family got the call that there were two kidneys ready for him.
"He needed those kidneys to survive," Williams said. "When you get that phone call that your loved one's name came up in the lottery pool, it's an amazing feeling."
Charles went into the hospital for his double kidney transplant at 2:30 p.m. and was out of surgery talking to his family by 5 p.m., he said. He suffered no major complications and was able to return to work for another year after his transplant to become principal of Gibson Elementary School.
"It's a definite life change," Charles said. "I was able to get back up and go to work full time. I'm up around now, playing a little golf every now and then and doing what I want to do."
More than 1.9 million people have registered for Louisiana's Organ and Tissue Donor Registry, but Slakey said the goal is to get to 2.2 million people by 2013. That's because every 12 minutes another person is added to the national transplant list, and an average of 18 people die daily while waiting for an organ transplant.
About 108,000 are currently waiting for organs across the country, including nearly 2,000 men, women and children in Louisiana.
"People in Louisiana are very generous," Slakey said. "We've been through a lot, and we know how to give."
The organ donation most often occurs after brain death if a patient or family consents. Each organ is evaluated individually. No history of chronic disease, infection or cancers except brain tumor can exist. Organ donors also may donate tissue. Recovered tissues are used to transplant heart valves, bone, veins, skin and soft connective tissues, such as tendons and ligaments, that can restore thousands of people to active and productive lives.
A person who donates his organs and tissue could potentially save the lives of up to 50 people.
"Organ donation is a must," Williams said. "I'm a registered organ donor. And I think if you can help someone else live on with the donation, it's an amazing gift. I know, because I've seen someone else help my dad."
Charles said he especially hopes members of the black community will register to be organ donors. Black residents are at higher risk of diabetes and blood pressure, which can put them at risk of kidney failure. According to the state Department of Health and Hospitals, 13.7 percent of blacks in Louisiana are diagnosed with diabetes, compared to 8.2 percent of Hispanics and 8.9 percent of the white population. Black women are at greater risk of high blood pressure, with 44.7 percent suffering hypertension between 2001 and 2004, according to state health officials, compared to 28.5 percent of white women and 26.4 percent of Hispanic women.
Registering as an organ and tissue donor is easy. You simply add the donor heart designation to your driver's license, learner's permit or state identification card. It's also important to let your family know about your wishes. In the case of an emergency, if one of them says "no," then a donation cannot occur regardless of whether you're signed up as a donor.