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Wanting and Waiting

Despite the widespread need and publicity, people are still reluctant to donate organs. Now a new program in schools gets children thinking about the issue--well before tragedy strikes.

March 19, 1997

On any given day, more than 2,500 people in Southern California are awaiting a telephone call informing them that a donor has been found and a lifesaving transplant surgery can take place.

For many, that call never comes.

And one of the reasons has to do with another sad statistic: About half of families approached for organ donation say no.

The problem of organ donor refusal isn't unique to this area. The national rate of refusal also hovers around 50%.

But after several years of stagnation in organ donation, health experts are looking to new sources to reverse the trend.

Who they are targeting may surprise you: The Southern California Organ Procurement Center has launched a program in schools to inform kids, grades six through 12, about the issue.

The goal is not to sign up donors; students are never even asked how they feel about donation. Instead, the program aims to educate students so they can form their own attitudes about the issue based on the facts.

Ed Rodevich, math and science coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education, is arranging workshops on the topic for Orange County teachers and administrators. "This is an educational program that has lots of implications, and we wanted to make sure we allowed them to have the opportunity to learn about it," he says.

Rodevich said he heard about the program when he attended a statewide conference of science educators, but it didn't hit home until his 17-year-old daughter decided to get a driver's license.

Her license arrived with the familiar pink card on which she was to declare whether she wanted to donate her organs after death. "And she said, 'What about this, Dad? What does it mean?' And I thought, 'She really doesn't know.' "

Rodevich's experience is typical, says Gloria Garcia Bohrer, who created the student education program for the Southern California Organ Procurement Center.

Usually the first time kids hear about organ donation is when they apply for their first driver's license, and "it occurred to me that it was very important that they have a lot of good information to make that decision," Bohrer says.

The lack of understanding about organ donation and transplantation, it appears, is contributing to the low donor rate among Americans, says Bohrer, a former teacher who was hired by a San Diego transplant center five years ago to increase awareness in the community. About 12,000 to 15,000 potential donor organs are available each year, but only about one-third of those are transplanted.

Initially, Bohrer says, she was puzzled that so many people refused to donate at their relative's time of death when national surveys show 85% of Americans approve of donation and transplantation.

Surveys show people often refuse donation at the time of death for several reasons, including:

* They don't understand or trust that the people most in need will receive the organs.

* They don't know what the deceased would have wanted regarding donation because it was never discussed.

* They don't understand that brain death, the medical condition under which most donation becomes feasible, is irreversible and that the patient cannot survive.

* They don't know if their religion allows donation (almost all do).

* They fear the body will be altered in a way that will prevent viewing at a memorial service (it won't).

"I felt we were always operating in a crisis mode," Bohrer says. "There was a lack of understanding of what transplant was and why there was this need. But instead of doing that [education] at the lowest point in a person's life--when they had never thought about this before--I thought, why not go to schools and talk to kids about it? If you want to make a difference you have to bring in young people. They are the next generation. If you don't train them today, you will continue to work in this crisis mode."

Using her enthusiasm, skills as an educator and some grant money, Bohrer created a curriculum for students in grades six through 12. She was eventually hired by the Southern California Organ Procurement Center and has expanded the program, called Discoveries.

A videotape geared to adolescents was recently created to augment the curriculum, and teacher training and instructional materials are also available to free Bohrer from having to do all the teaching. Bohrer, usually taking a transplant recipient along to speak, has visited schools in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Kern counties.

So far she has addressed only college students in Orange County. In Febrary, she spoke at Cal State Fullerton to students interested in medical careers and at Chapman University in Orange to students enrolled in a criminal justice class titled "Death and the Law."

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