Gift of life: Passionate UMC advocates emerge for organ donation

As Bob Young talks about organ donation, he recalls the years he served as a hospital corpsman in Vietnam, treating villagers during the day and wounded Marines at night.

“There’s no greater high than saving someone’s life,” he said.

Mr. Young, 64, wants more United Methodists to experience that “high.” He’s a passionate advocate for organ donation at his church, First United Methodist in Santa Rosa, Calif.

“There’s no greater gift you can give someone than their life,” he said. As a denomination, he believes: “We should be doing everything we can to give people their lives.”

Someone else gave Mr. Young that gift. In 1998, an inherited disease damaged his liver, to the point where he was within weeks of death. A transplant saved him.

Mr. Young says response is always positive when he speaks, and most fellow church members agree to register as donors, if they haven’t already. But far too few in the U.S. are donating, and he and others close to the issue say that churches could try harder to raise awareness.

“There’s no question, we should be doing more,” said the Rev. Harry Durbin, interim senior vice president for faith and health at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare in Memphis and an ordained United Methodist minister. “I think it fits with love and care of the neighbor.”

Ann Meixner (left), a member of First United Methodist Church in Laurel, Md., received a kidney donation in January 2011 from her pastor, the Rev. Chris Owens (right). PHOTO BY BLAIRLEE OWENS

April is National Donate Life Month, honoring organ, tissue, marrow and blood donors and encouraging more Americans to follow their example. About 116,000 people are on the waiting list for donated organs, and 18 people die every day in the U.S. waiting for transplants.

Nearly all religious groups, including the United Methodist Church, support organ and tissue donation. The denomination’s Social Principles affirm organ donation and transplantation as “acts of charity, agape love, and self-sacrifice,” and encourage churches to participate in Organ & Tissue Donor Sunday every November.

United Methodist-affiliated hospitals are doing their part, with many operating leading centers for organ transplantation. The Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in San Antonio runs the largest living donor transplant program in the nation, and Methodist University Hospital Transplant Institute in Memphis, Tenn., ranks highly for liver transplants.

But the issue hasn’t been a priority for the denomination or its annual conferences. The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), which lobbies on social issues, promotes Organ & Tissue Donor Sunday but does not track churches’ participation.

“Our attention and priority has been getting resources out there for churches to use, and no so much about collecting the data about who observes it,” said the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, director for the Alcohol, Other Addictions and Health Care Program for GBCS, noting that this is just one of dozens of health-related observances on the denominational calendar.

“Churches make decisions about what they want to promote,” she said. “This is an important one because it’s lifesaving.”

Indeed, thousands die every year for lack of available donor organs, while “a multitude of healthy organs are being buried every day,” according to the website for the United Network for Organ Sharing, the non-profit that manages the nation’s organ transplant system.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” said the Rev. Chris Owens of First UMC in Laurel, Md., himself a living organ donor.

What the denomination does have are individuals passionate about this issue—and within their congregations, they’re mobilizing people to register as donors. Most have direct personal experience with organ donation or transplants.

Every year at Community United Methodist Church in Ellington, Conn., members hear a speaker’s story about organ donation and get the chance to register as donors. And that’s because church member Nancy Tyson-Alexander has made organ donation a personal mission.

When her husband, Albert Alexander, passed away in 2006, she decided to donate his organs as well as his tissue. (Donation of tissue—such as skin and blood vessels—enables more than 1 million tissue transplants each year.)

Ms. Tyson-Alexander says she’s been told that, through his donated organs and tissue, her husband helped save more than 100 other lives. Now she works to save even more lives by encouraging people to donate.

The couple had never discussed organ donation, but she felt convinced her husband, an educator, would have wanted her to donate.

“I thought about his life he had led, and the many wonderful things he had done for so many people,” she said.

Ms. Tyson-Alexander, who is African-American, notes that the need for donated organs is especially great among people of color. Hispanics, African Americans and Asians are more likely to suffer end-stage renal disease, but persistent misinformation within those communities tends to discourage donation. One major myth: For persons registered as donors, emergency room doctors won’t work as hard to save their lives.

“That’s just not true,” she said. “The main mission of the medical profession is to save lives first.”


Living donors


The Rev. Kimberly Brown-Whale, pastor of Essex United Methodist in Essex, Md., isn’t especially vocal about promoting organ donation from the pulpit, but leads by example. In 2009, she became a donor, giving one of her kidneys to a man she’s never met.

Ms. Brown-Whale, 57, had seen a TV news report about a woman who needed a kidney, and volunteered to donate at a local hospital. She wasn’t a match, but doctors asked if she might be willing to donate to someone else. She said yes.

“I feel like I was blessed with good health and could pass that on to somebody,” she said.

One of her kidneys was removed with laparoscopic surgery, a newer, less invasive procedure. Aside from soreness, she had no ill effects.

She never met the man who received her kidney, and she’s OK with that. Ms. Brown-Whale, who served as a missionary in Senegal and Mozambique along with her husband Richard, says donation is a way to help others that’s not fraught with complicating factors.

“I’m often in situations where I don’t know what the good choice is,” she said. “In this case, I was able to give something that was easy to give and for someone else, was hard to get.”


Meeting human need


Mr. Owens, the UM pastor from Laurel, Md., is also fairly low-key when it comes to talking about organ donation at his church. It’s an issue he cares about intensely, but talking about it too much might seem immodest. In 2011, he gave one of his kidneys to church member Ann Meixner.

Both he and Ms. Meixner are doing well.

“Her health has been much better,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing to see.”

Mr. Owens, knowing the great need, wishes more United Methodists knew about the viability of becoming a living donor and would consider donating to an acquaintance or stranger. He notes that, aside from having to give up backyard football (to lengthen the long odds of injuring his other kidney), he’s had no real hardship.

“If you’re healthy, you can do this,” he said. “It’s a way of meeting human need in a very practical way, of giving of ourselves to make someone else whole.”


Why not more?


Donating a kidney, of course, is big decision, but many argue that registering to donate in the event of death is an easy call. So why aren’t more churches vigorously promoting organ and tissue donation?

For one thing, plenty of other issues compete for airtime in United Methodist churches on Sunday mornings. General Conference 2008 approved “Four Areas of Focus”—including fighting diseases of poverty, like malaria, and the church has marshaled lots of energy and resources toward its Imagine No Malaria campaign.

Meanwhile, Organ & Tissue Donation Sunday is back in the pack with 14 UMC “special Sundays,” covering such topics as rural life ministries and disability awareness.

Furthermore, while there are local advocates, no visible champion for organ donation has emerged at the national level. And organ donation is a topic that makes some squeamish.

“Frankly, nobody likes to talk about dying,” said Mr. Young.

Mr. Owens agreed, adding: “Health awareness is something that isn’t talked about anyway, which I think is unfortunate. But part of discipleship is caring for our bodies for God. I think [organ donation] goes hand in hand.”

And even vocal advocates say that, ultimately, the decision to donate is a personal one. While Mr. Durbin would like more people to register, he stops short of equating organ donation with one’s Christian duty, as does Thomas Mayo, a medical ethics expert and professor at Southern Methodist University’s law school.

“I’m hard pressed to say that religious leaders or other thought leaders are under an obligation to raise awareness,” he said. “But is it a good thing when they do so? I think so.”

Feeling called

Churches do serve as an excellent portal for educating people about organ donation, according to the Rev. Bobby Baker, a Baptist minister and director of faith and community partnerships at Methodist LeBonheur.

He helps lead the hospital’s Congregational Health Network, partnering with 500 congregations, of all denominations, as “points of access” for healthcare, caregiving, information and prevention in the Memphis area.

“Organ donation is part of what we emphasize,” he said. Participating church members can attend a two-hour training program to learn about organ donation and transplants, and many in turn advocate donation within their congregations.

Mr. Baker noted that Memphis’ organ procurement agency, Mid-South Transplant Foundation, conducted an “information blitz” a few years ago by way of African-American congregations. The agency provided churches with materials, videos and speakers with personal testimonies about their experiences as organ recipients or donors. That campaign made a real difference.

“Donation in the African-American community skyrocketed, and they believe it’s because they focused on churches,” Mr. Baker said.


Mary Jacobs

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