Survey Shows Public Says "Yes" to Strangers

New York, NY
June 22, 2000

While most people would probably agree that charity begins at home, a recent survey offers the inspiring news that nearly one out of every four Americans would consider donating one of the most profound gifts of all to a total stranger: the gift of life through an organ transplant. And they would be willing to do this while still alive.

Nearly one out of four (23.4%) of 1000 people queried told pollsters that while living, they would be “likely” to consider donating a kidney or a portion of their liver or lung to help save the life of someone they did not know. The Organ Donor and Transplant Study, sponsored by the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), is the result of the non-profit organization’s major effort to gather statistical evidence of potential organ-donor attitudes.

“This is encouraging news for the 70,000 Americans currently on waiting lists to receive life-saving organs,” says Fred Herbert, NKF chairman. “Last year, while the number of organ donations from people who had died remained flat, living donation increased by 7%. The foundation’s challenge now is to find the safest, most effective ways humanly possible to take advantage of these Good Samaritans’ instincts and encourage this trend so we don’t have to watch hopelessly as 13 people on these same waiting lists die each day.”

Joyce Thomas might have been one of those waiting-list statistics, but then her Good Samaritan appeared.

Paul Brewer, 53, is a meter reader at a Maryland gas company. When he was only 16 years old, his mom died of cancer. It was this memory of his mother that filled Paul’s mind, he says, when he decided to donate his kidney to Joyce Thomas, a virtual stranger.” Joyce was 42, the same age my mom was when she died. I decided I was going to do my darnedest to give her extra years on this earth.”

About five years ago, Joyce became ill with a kidney infection. While treating her, doctors discovered that Joyce had been born with only one kidney. Soon after, that kidney failed and Joyce was forced to go on dialysis. She was told it might take two years until a donor kidney could be found. All of Joyce’s family members had been tested as possible donors, but none was a match. One Sunday after church, Paul’s and Joyce’s families bumped into one another at a local restaurant. Paul, his wife and his son all agreed to be tested to see if they might qualify as donors. Paul turned out to be a match. “I was really excited. I just felt that it was my calling,” he says. In 1995, the day before Paul Brewer’s 48th birthday, the transplant was performed. Today both Paul and Joyce are thriving and their families have become close friends.

The National Kidney Foundation’s random-sample survey of Americans’ attitudes toward organ transplants, like Joyce Thomas’s, reveals this encouraging data: 90% of adults said they would be willing to contribute as “live donors;” that is, they would consider donating one kidney or part of their liver or lung while still living. And 90% of this group said they would be likely to donate the organ to a family member. Fifty-three percent told pollsters they would be likely to donate to a friend, and 26% to a “stranger.”

The NKF survey also points to some contradictions in the public’s attitude toward organ donation. For example, it notes that while almost everyone (94%) is “aware” that the back of their driver’s license offers a space where they can agree to donate their organs, only 41% of adults have actually signed their licenses or other similar donor forms.

Another challenge the data reveals: 85% of people responding agree that organ-transplant recipients “can lead an active life,” yet almost one-third (31%) say they themselves would not want to undertake transplant surgery, even if it offered them the only way to survive.

The NKF survey data divides the country into four large census regions and discovered that major regional differences exist in the public’s attitude toward organ donation, especially in the Northeastern quadrant. People living in the Northeast proved to be the least likely (54%) of the four regions to have ever considered being an organ donor as compared to a high of 73% in the West. And for reasons yet to be understood, over half (52%) of Northeasterners who haven’t considered organ donation say that’s simply because they “just haven’t thought of it.” This is “significantly higher than the population as a whole,” according to the NKF.

In a companion survey completed this past April, the National Kidney Foundation polled a very select and distinguished group of people known as donor families. Donor families have donated the organs and/or tissues of a loved one who has died. There are thousands of such donor family members across the country, and nearly 500 of them responded to the NKF survey.

Among the major findings of the Donor Family Survey are the following:

  • In 70% of the cases where the donor had left an ID card/license behind indicating a desire to donate organs, the main reason cited by the family for deciding to donate was to carry out the loved one’s wishes (vs. only 18% of cases where there was no ID card).
  • Among those who had completed an ID card, 50% had discussed donation prior to death, according to family members. In contrast, where donors had not signed an ID card, 86% of families report they also did not discuss donation prior to death of the loved one.
  • In nearly all (95%) cases, when families donated, family members were in agreement about the decision, even though nearly half (44%) had not discussed this prior to being faced with the death of a loved one.
  • Nine out of ten (91%) found the organ donation a “positive experience.”

The two surveys undertaken this year represent new program initiatives employed by the National Kidney Foundation to assist it in fulfilling its mission, which is to prevent kidney and urinary tract diseases, improve the health and well-being of those affected by these diseases, and increase the availability of all body organs for transplantation.

For more information on the surveys and organ donation, call the National Kidney Foundation at (800) 622-9010.

Editor’s Note: The national telephone survey of 1000 adults (18 years or older) was conducted for NKF this past January by Strategic Surveys International of New York City. The polling company indicated that its computer-based methodology “is projectible and representative of the U.S. adult population.”