NAPERVILLE, Ill. - William Hector doesn't just teach high school students about U.S. history. He teaches them about life - and how they can save lives.
"If we could just increase organ donations, thousands of lives could be saved every year," Hector says. "It's the most important thing I can teach students."
It's a subject the 53-year-old knows a lot about.
He was diagnosed with diabetes as a high school sophomore, and his kidneys failed in 1985. After a 13-month wait, he received a kidney transplant - only to have his pancreas shut down, requiring a pancreas transplant a year later.
The pair of organ transplant surgeries dramatically changed the suburban high school teacher's approach to education.
No longer was it enough for Hector to teach U.S. history and coach the debating team or wrestling squad. He decided he had to take advantage of his good fortune by not only speaking to dozens of classes each year about organ transplants but also seeking changes in the statewide curriculum of Illinois to talk about organ donations.
Hector's mission began more than 12 years ago, when a fellow teacher asked him to share his organ transplant story with her health class at Downers Grove South High School in the Chicago suburbs.
He admits he was hesitant about that first talk, feeling more confident discussing such subjects as the Revolutionary War and the Great Depression than his own health struggles.
"I never would have done it without being pushed into it," recalls Hector, who now teaches at nearby Downers Grove North High. "But when I started speaking, I felt like I connected with the kids in a way that I never had connected before.
"They really seemed to appreciate hearing a personal story from someone they knew, about something so important," he says.
Soon, Hector began contacting other organizations and other high schools, trying to set up talks at more places. The first year, it was three high schools. Then, it grew to 12 schools, and he started bringing in other recipients of organ transplants to speak.
"As transplant recipients, we don't have the expertise or the technology," Hector says. "What we do have are the stories to share, and I have the expertise to go into classrooms and do that."
Over time, Hector helped develop something of a curriculum, a way to help organ recipients tell about their experiences. No one tells the students to sign up to donate - nor does anyone remind them that auto accidents are the leading cause of death among teen-agers, making them frequent candidates to be donors. Instead, they encourage students to go home and talk about it with their family.
"We've put together a way to encourage family discussions," Hector says. "That's the most important thing, to think about this subject."
While there are no statistics available on students who have signed up to be organ donors as a result of hearing from Hector or other organ recipients, teachers report having many students say they've decided to become donors.
"Bill and his group give a personal experience that the kids don't get anywhere else," says Debbie Bruns, a health teacher at Downers Grove South. "I know they influence a lot of kids to go home and have conversations at the dinner table, and we get a fair number of kids coming back after hearing him speak with the commitment to be donors."
These days, the 31-year veteran teacher organizes organ donation education days at as many as three dozen public and private high schools, reaching about 30,000 students mostly in the western suburbs of Chicago. He primarily works with three groups - the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois, the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois and an organ transplant support group in Naperville.
"We try to find people who live in these kids' communities to speak, to reach out to the kids," says Hector, who is married with one grown son. "We tell them to give a day for your donor."But Hector grew frustrated with the limitations of what he could do and the number of high school students he could reach each year.
About 70,000 people across the country are waiting for organs, and more than 6,000 died last year while hoping for an organ.
Across the nation, thousands of students reach the age of 16 each year and become eligible for both driver's licenses and organ donation cards. Yet the first time most of them think about donating organs is when they reach the state's Department of Motor Vehicles to apply for their driver's licenses.
Hector was hoping to reach more of those teen-agers, and in 1997 good fortune struck again. He won a Milken National Educator Award - recognizing his classroom teaching skills, work with students in extracurricular activities and his transplant education efforts - including a $25,000 prize to be spent however he wanted.
Suddenly, Hector and others had the resources to begin a campaign to make organ donor education part of the state's high school curriculum - not as a separate class, but as a topic to be covered in health, physical education, science or driver's education. When he was given his Milken prize, one of the people in the audience was a state legislator from his district, and she offered to sponsor the legislation.
After persistent lobbying, state legislators and the governor finally approved a bill calling for information on organ donation education to be made available to all high school teachers. It wasn't quite what Hector was seeking, but it was a start.
"Bill has pioneered making sure that this becomes part of every Illinois high school," says Donna Duncan of the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois. "It's just a phenomenal effort."
At least one other state has followed Illinois' lead and gone even a step further. Wisconsin passed a law this spring requiring 30-minute instruction lessons on organ donation during all driver education classes.
What happens here
In Maryland, there are no such requirements related to organ donation education, although many high schools do request speakers from local transplant groups.
The Transplant Resource Center of Maryland Inc. estimates that its representatives spoke to 1,800 students in elementary and high schools across the state in 1999, and officials with the group say they are developing a curriculum to reach more high school-age students.
"That's something we would love to do," says Margaret Cellucci, public affairs officer for the center. "It's a great idea."
In Illinois, Hector has taken on a new challenge. Now that the curriculum is required to be available to schools, he wants teachers to be trained on how to use it. He has helped develop a teacher education course and is lobbying the state's school board to certify it as a class teachers can take to fulfill their recertification requirements.
"Just imagine if we had a teacher trained in every high school in this state to teach students about organ transplants," Hector says. "If every high school would take this upon themselves, they could save a lot of lives."
One of those lives could even be Hector's. Last year, his transplanted pancreas failed, and he's been waiting 16 months for a replacement.
"I've been lucky so far," he says. "But so many organs get lost and so many people die waiting because people don't sign their cards. We need to change that."