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San Jose Mercury News, Calif., L.A. Chung Column: Would-Be Organ Donors Disappoint

April 25, 2007

By L.A. Chung, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Apr. 25–April is national Donate Life month, a traditional way to focus our attention on the need for organ donation — and what each of us can do personally to help.

But if the recent experience of Esther Medina, a beloved community leader in San Jose, is any indication, our attention, indeed, is so very hard to hold nowadays.

As well-known and respected as she is, Medina, the executive director of the Mexican American Community Services Agency for more than two decades, is no closer to a match than before. The shame of such a thing.

Seven months ago, a front-page story in the Mercury News about Medina’s need for a living kidney donor made public what had been a private struggle in her retirement: Advanced kidney disease could be fatal.

There was an outpouring of response and a double-session public information forum in September at which doctors and an organ recipient spoke. Medina, 70, inadvertently became the local poster gal for kidney disease and live-organ donation. She heightened awareness in the Latino community.

From that, Medina’s supporters sent out thick information packets to those who signed up to help. Only a few people, however, went through with the testing for compatibility.

Live donor shortage

Imagine how difficult it is for regular people trying to find a match without widespread attention. Such situations underscore why secondary “preferred networks” have sprung up. Groups such as Lifesharers.org provide a free registry that allows members to pledge to donate organs in the future to anyone in the registry who pledges the same, should they die first and a match works. Live-donor networks such as matchingdonors.com that allow donors to choose a recipient have their critics, but exist precisely because of the donation shortage.

Last week, Medina’s coordinator at the kidney transplant program at the University of California-San Francisco asked for more candidates to test for compatibility.

Medina, however, is feeling awkward.

“I feel strange calling people, asking, ‘What happened? Are you still interested in being tested? If you are, are you going to do the paperwork?’ she said. “You know how I am about asking for help.”

Life goes at a breakneck pace, she knows. Things get lost in the cracks. Potential donors may not complete paperwork and go to UCSF simply because of time. Perhaps they intended to do it, then the holiday season intervened, and it was forgotten.

Hesitation or forgetfulness?

The September sessions were highly informative in a very personal way, though the quarter-inch packets were a bit overwhelming, said Jean Cohen of Sacred Heart Community Service, the host. So memorable was the kidney recipient who let them know “it’s intense and all-consuming for a while, but it’s manageable and a way that you could absolutely save someone’s life.”

Still, it does take careful follow-up to approach people in the right way, Cohen acknowledged.

Medina, the woman who tirelessly nudged and cajoled public officials, foundations, bureaucrats and community members in order to build multimillion-dollar housing projects and health centers, cannot find that moxie for her own benefit.

“I was just talking to my husband — ‘How do you do that? How do you do that without imposing on people and putting them on the spot?”

The answer is: Esther shouldn’t.

But others should. There should be legions making those calls, leafletting community events, asking on her behalf, and asking just as tirelessly again.

It’s the least we can do.

To apply to be tested at UCSF, call (800) 482-7389. Contact L.A. Chung at lchung@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5280.

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Copyright (c) 2007, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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