SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2000/Opinion

I want your autograph — to help save lives

During my long career in basketball, I was privileged to play with or against some of the greatest athletes of our time. But for sheer determination, no one can top the athletes I'm joining June 21-24 for the National Kidney Foundation's biennial U.S. Transplant Games at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. is the sponsor and, for the second time, I'm serving as honorary spokesman.

The Transplant Games, which began in 1990 with 400 participants, include kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas and bone marrow transplant recipients. This year more than 2,000 men, women, boys and girls will compete in basketball, tennis, table tennis, cycling, track and field, swimming, bowling, badminton, golf, racquetball, volleyball and a 5K road race. They will be cheered on by their families, the families of 1,000 organ donors and, in some cases, the donors themselves.

These 2,000 athletes are living proof that organ transplant recipients can enjoy active and productive lives. So is Sean Elliott of the San Antonio Spurs, who this past season became the first professional athlete to return to competition after receiving an organ transplant. He will be at the Transplant Games along with his brother and kidney donor, Noel. Stephon Marbury of the New Jersey Nets and Olympic champion sprinter Carl Lewis will also join us. NBA Entertainment and NBA Communications have been generous with their assistance in helping us increase media coverage, as they did two years ago.

In May 1997, I was blessed with the opportunity to donate a kidney to my daughter, Tia, who was suffering from kidney failure as a result of lupus. How's she doing? Not only did she make a full recovery, but it was one of the proudest moments of my life when I presented the gold medal for tennis mixed doubles to Tia and her partner, Art Hull, at the 1998 Transplant Games.

I hope the Transplant Games will inspire many more organ donations. But I need your help as well.

As executives, athletes or journalists involved in sports marketing and media, you have many opportunities to influence public action on two critical fronts: reducing the need for organ transplants and making sure that anyone who does need an organ transplant can get one.

First, let's advocate for and help fund the return of physical education to the standard K-12 curriculum, better park and recreation programs for Americans of all ages and ongoing public education about the benefits of regular exercise and good nutrition and dietary habits.

As we as a nation become more sedentary, exercise less and eat more poorly, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are reaching epidemic proportions in older adults and increasingly among youngsters as well. Obesity is a major cause of diabetes, heart trouble and kidney and urologic diseases, and it puts a strain on other vital organs as well.

While we celebrate the huge and lucrative growth of spectator sports, we also have a responsibility to encourage spectators to become active participants in sports or some other form of regular exercise.

Second, let's make the public aware that we need a huge increase in organ donations.

Nearly 70,000 people a year are on the waiting list for organ transplants. They'll wait three months to three years, depending on the type of organ. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people a year will die before the organ they need becomes available. Many more never even make it to the waiting list. Without funds or health insurance, they're "green screened" by health care officials.

Most of these deaths are preventable. Organ transplants now have more than a 60-year track record of success. Transplant procedures have been perfected. So there's no reason for most transplant candidates to die except that organs are not available.

Organ donations have remained static for the past 12 years at 5,000 a year, a small percentage of the qualified people who could donate their organs upon death. Living donation is also an option in some cases. Kidney transplants are the most common, but bone marrow and portions of a lung, pancreas or liver can also be transplanted.

Even though we have the capability to save many more lives, we're not doing it. Here's why:

Organ procurement procedures and transplant criteria are inconsistent from state to state.

States don't use available resources, such as motor vehicle registration, to create donor databases.

Surviving relatives are unwilling to give consent about 50 percent of the time. (I don't understand why, after you've signed an organ donor card, you then have to trust that your relatives will honor your wishes.)

Hospitals don't always inform surviving relatives that organ donation is an option, even though the hospitals are federally mandated to do so.

Most inexcusable, many potential transplants are held up by political battles among government regulatory agencies, organ procurement organizations and transplant centers.

We now have a National Organ Donor Initiative, which requires uniform national criteria, a uniform organ registry database and that hospitals ask survivors for consent to organ donation, even if no donor card has been signed. Getting this initiative fully implemented is another matter. Here's how we can help save lives in the meantime.

Since the beginning of my career, I figure I must have signed more than half a million autographs. Now I want yours, America. Actually, I want four autographs.

First, please sign and carry an organ donor card.

Second, please give written instructions to your relatives to honor your wishes regarding donation, and not to withhold their consent.

Third, please write your senator and representative in Congress and urge them to amend the law so that survivor consent is no longer necessary when a person has already signed an organ donor card.

As we celebrate the courageous athletes at the Transplant Games, let's also do our part to help save even more lives. Thank you.

NBA hall of famer Oscar Robertson, now a small-businessman, is the author and publisher of "The Art of Basketball," a portion of whose profits go to the National Kidney Foundation.

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