A few years ago, my son Marquis had an asthma attack. The doctors told me he went into cardiac arrest. For seven days, I waited in the hospital, hoping and praying to see my son’s smiling face again soon. Marquis didn’t wake up, and after dozens of exhaustive tests the doctors pronounced him dead. He was 13. I was devastated and exhausted and wanted to go home to mourn the death of my son. But first I needed to make an urgent choice: whether to donate my son’s organs.
In that moment of agonizing pain, I remembered something Marquis told me. We were discussing a health problem I had and how I may someday need a transplant. He told me, “You won’t need a kidney from anyone, Mom. You can have mine.”
I said yes to donation that day and that decision continues to give me much comfort. I know my son is a hero who saved the lives of three other kids. They walk the earth every day because of Marquis. That choice – the result of my son’s words – has impacted my life and others’ lives in an extremely powerful way.
Since then I have dedicated myself to educating others and honoring Marquis’ legacy. Just one donor can save up to 8 lives and help improve the quality of life of more than 75 people. There are nearly 115,000 men, women and children in the country waiting for a life-saving transplant. Unfortunately, only 48 percent of eligible people in Pennsylvania have chosen to register as organ and tissue donors. In Philadelphia, the number is much worse: just 32 percent.
I think I know why. I’ve encountered some persistent myths about donation. A common one is that doctors won’t try as hard to save your life if you’re a donor. I went through it and that’s not true. I know they did everything they could to save Marquis because I watched them. When they told me he had passed, I asked them to do the test again. And again. They did it as many times as I asked.
Another common myth is that organ donors can’t have an open casket at their funeral. From personal experience, I know that’s not true either.
It is important for everyone to get educated about donation. As an African American woman who may one day need a transplant, I know that it is especially urgent for the black community. One out of every three people on the transplant waiting list is African American. That’s because we are more likely to have a health condition, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, that ultimately requires a transplant. At the same time, the chance of success for some transplants is higher and the likelihood of immune system rejection lower when the donor and recipient are of the same race.
The good news is that there has been a great deal of progress. Thirty years ago, African Americans represented just 8 percent of organ donors in the United States. Last year it had doubled to 16 percent. Policy changes over the past decades have reduced or eliminated racial gaps for people on the waiting list.
Advocates in Philadelphia want to keep this important progress moving. In Philly, we are working across the city to talk about donation at community events and festivals. (I’ll be at Greater Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 14 if you want to say hello.) We’re asking people who have been impacted by organ donation to share their stories, and encouraging everyone to consider registering.
The issue really comes down to families, friends and neighbors supporting one another. Everyone in Philadelphia should register as an organ donor. It only takes 30 seconds at DonateLifePA.org/registration.
There’s one more thing about registering as a donor that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t had to walk this path. When you register as a donor, if something should happen to you, you’re giving your family the gift of knowing for sure what you want.
Marquis’ words made a difficult decision very clear. I knew what my son wanted. Four years later, I’m still grieving. But it makes me smile to know that my son is a hero to the kids he saved – and their moms won’t have to experience what I did.
Markita Lewis is Chairperson of Hearts of Gold, the Donor Family Support Group for Gift of Life Donor Program. She lives in Philadelphia.