[Viewpoint] Organ donation is the gift of life

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[Viewpoint] Organ donation is the gift of life

For business professionals, the early part of the year, especially January, is the busiest. Like my peers, I had a hectic first month, with the first page of my calendar full of scheduling notes.

Then in February, the calendar showed that Feb. 16 was the first anniversary of the death of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan.

The cardinal donated his organs after his death, and his loving act brought more attention to organ donation in Korea than ever before. I believe the anniversary of his death will have great significance in the history of organ donation here. His acts planted a seed that may grow into a flourishing determination in Korean society to share life with those in danger of losing it.

Thanks to Kim’s example, as the number of people waiting for organ transplants grew to 17,055, the number who pledged to donate organs rose sharply, to 206,884 in 2009 from 93,024 the previous year.

In Europe, where I was born and raised, the practice of organ donation is more widely spread than in Asia. But even in developed countries, some people have been repulsed by the very idea.

Let’s take Spain, for example, where organ donation is now more active than anywhere else in the world. In the early days, Spanish people regarded organ donation as a taboo for religious and superstitious reasons. But thanks to continued efforts to improve the perception of organ donation and the establishment of efficient systems, the Spanish people changed their minds.

Organ donation is a simple process. When a donor dies in an accident or from an illness, his or her information is immediately forwarded to the national organ transplantation center. This around-the-clock center is linked with hospitals, airports, police and emergency rescue crews so that organs can be transported quickly to patients waiting for a life-saving transplant.

Every hospital in Spain employs medical professionals devoted to organ donation, and more than 5,000 specialized consultants are actively serving in this area. In part because of such efforts, the ratio of organ donors in Spain is 34.3 persons in 1 million - tenfold the number of organ donors in Korea, where the number stands at 3.1 persons per 1 million.

The Netherlands, my mother country, is struggling to raise the number of organ donations by implementing the opt-out system, which regards citizens as having agreed to organ donation unless they explicitly refuse to take part in the program.

Fortunately, a number of campaigns are improving the recognition and perception of organ donation in Korea. One is being led by the Seoul National University Hospital in conjunction with Novartis Korea. It was through this program that I was able to form the Himalayan Expedition Team of Life-shared People, through which donors, recipients and organs climbed the Himalayas.

Organ donors and recipients are often believed to be impaired, and the popular perception is that their health must suffer ever after. But our team reached the peak successfully. By scaling the Himalayas, we established a momentum we can use to push aside prejudices and help more people become willing to take part.

Since then, Novartis Korea has been steadily conducting campaigns for organ donation. During our monthlong “Campaign of Donating Organs and Sharing Life,” the number of people who pledged to donate organs significantly increased.

But as time passes, the number of registrations for organ donation has slipped back to the levels seen before the passing of Cardinal Kim.

I pledged to donate organs in Korea last year. Some people around me wondered why I made that promise. They asked why I pledged to donate organs in Korea, which is not my motherland.

But borders are meaningless when it comes to saving lives. I genuinely hope I can give the chance of life to some of the 17,055 patients who are waiting for organ transplants. I also hope more Korean people will understand that organ transplants are not a fearful thing, but a happy one.

Now is the time to remember and meditate upon the spirit of neighborly love left to us by Cardinal Kim. It is vital that more people sympathize with the true life-saving spirit that is exemplified by organ donation. Consider how meaningful it would be to make a simple pledge to donate organs, together with family members or friends, before the end of this month. The job of changing the world into a better one is sometimes easier than we think.

*The writer is the president of Novartis Korea.

by Peter Jager
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