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Maine Sec. of State Seeks to Increase Organ Donation
04/09/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap wants to increase the number of Maine drivers who sign up for organ donation. Mainers typically indicate that they're organ donors on their drivers' licenses. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is joining the push to increase the organ donor pool, saying only 55 percent of eligible donors give their consent, and thousands across the U.S. are in need. Patty Wight has more.

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Maine Sec. of State Seeks to Increase Organ Donati Listen
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Organ recipient Emily Sherwood shares her story as Rep Megan Rochelo and Matt Boger of New England Organ Donor Bank look on.

Organ recipient Emily Sherwood shares her story as Rep. Megan Rochelo and Matt Boger of the New England Organ Donor Bank look on.

Four years ago, Emily Sherwood of Wells was 48 and healthy. Then, suddenly, over the span of a week, her life was in danger. Her liver started to fail. She's still not sure why - it might have been from medication she was taking. She checked into Mercy Hospital in Portland, but doctors immediately transferred her to a hospital in Massachusetts because of the severity of her condition.

Soon, Sherwood was given a dire prognosis: She was going to die. "The doctors said I had 24 hours. So, needless to say, there was a caravan of all my cousins and my father driving down to Lahey Clinic."

Her only hope was a new liver. Sherwood was number one on the East Coast waiting list, and amazingly, one became available just in time. "The liver I got was from a woman in Maine, ironically," she says.

It saved Sherwood's life. There are thousands of other people who face similar situations. About 117,000 people across the U.S. currently in need of an organ transplant, and about 18 die every day waiting for one.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap wants to change that. He says the state already tries to make it as easy as possible for people to sign up as donors - either on their drivers' license applications and renewals, or on a state Web site.

"This is probably one of the more important things we do that most folks don't really know about," he says.

But the challenge is getting people to think ahead and make decisions about a tragic future they don't want to envision. Maine Center for Disease Control Director Sheila Pinette says indicating your preference ahead of time can helped loved ones during a crisis, and the impact can be far-reaching.

"If one person dies - especially a young, healthy individual - you can give as many as 50 organ and tissue donations to allow other people to live a tremendous quality of life," Pinette says.

Two Maine lawmakers who have first-hand experience with the giving side of organ donation are joining the push. Democratic Rep. Megan Rochelo lost her husband about a year ago. She says the fact that he donated his tissues helped her with her grief. Republican Sen. Brian Langley says his niece lost her husband to cancer just months ago, and he, too, was a donor.

"In all of this tragedy was a small glimmer of solace. A small, very tiny measure of comfort - the fact that cancer patients can donate their corneas," he says. "And Steve was an organ donor. He wanted to, with all of his heart, leave something behind."

Gov. Paul LePage signed a proclamation designating April as "Donate Life" month in Maine, which corresponds with a national campaign. The Maine CDC's Sheila Pinette says organ donation is a person's last chance to make a difference. In 2012, she says, 27 organ donors in Maine made 94 life-saving organ transplants available to others.

Photo by Patty Wight.

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