Heart transplant recipient Jennifer Lentini shows a photo of her...

Heart transplant recipient Jennifer Lentini shows a photo of her organ donor, center, while speaking at an event Wednesday in Manhasset hosted by Donate Life NYS, which administers the organ and tissue registry in the state. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Less than half of all New York adults are registered to become organ and tissue donors, a figure that trails far below the national average, even as nearly 8,000 state residents remain on a waitlist for a potentially lifesaving transplant, advocates said last week.

While a record number of transplants were performed nationally in 2023, New York — particularly Long Island — faces headwinds in getting residents to sign up to be a donor, said Aisha Tator, executive director of Donate Life New York State, an upstate nonprofit focused on increasing organ, eye and tissue donation.

In total, 48% of New York adults are registered donors — among the lowest in the country, although that figure has nearly doubled in the past decade — compared with the national average of 64%, Tator said Wednesday. She was at a meeting in Manhasset hosted by Long Island auto dealers as part of April's National Donate Life Month.

And while 51% of Suffolk County residents are registered donors, the figure drops to 40% in Nassau County and to 29% over the border in Queens, Tator said.

WHAT TO KNOW 

  • Less than half of all New York adults are registered to become organ and tissue donors, a figure that trails far below the national average.
  • Nearly 8,000 state residents remain on a waitlist for a potentially lifesaving transplant, advocates said last week.
  • While a record number of transplants were performed nationally in 2023, residents in New York and Long Island aren't signing up to be donors as often as in other states.

A growing need

“New York State suffers from a public health crisis because of a scarcity of organs and tissue for transplants,” Tator said, noting that a lack of awareness about the registry is partially responsible for the low numbers. “We have the third-highest need in the country for patients who need a transplant …. But we struggle, in terms of the percentage of New Yorkers who are registered to make this incredibly altruistic, and very needed decision.”

The need for donors, experts said, is growing.

There are 7,962 New Yorkers waiting for organ transplants, including 1,043 who have been waiting more than five years, according to federal data. It is not clear how many Long Islanders are on the list, officials said, although most of those waiting for an organ need a kidney. Last year, 369 New Yorkers died while on the waitlist.

There were 46,632 organ transplants performed from both living and deceased donors in 2023, an 8.7% increase over 2022, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the nonprofit that runs the nation’s transplant system through a contract with the federal government.

One organ can save eight lives, and more can be helped through eye and tissue donation, according to Donate Life.

Long Island organ and tissue donations rose last year above pre-pandemic levels, driven in part by growing public awareness; expanded ability to use organs once deemed medically unviable; an increase in available organs due to the national increase in drug overdoses and suicides; and changes at the once-struggling local organ procurement organization, local doctors have said.

Jennifer Lentini, of Hicksville, is among those who have benefited from an organ transplant. 

When Lentini was 13, she went into cardiac arrest during abdominal surgery and doctors determined she needed a heart transplant to survive. The teenager, whose life previously had been focused on school, boys and visiting friends at the mall, was suddenly facing the fight of her life.

Three months later, Lentini's life was saved when she received a heart from a young boy named Matthew McIntyre of upstate New York who had died in a shooting accident.

“I'm so fortunate,” Lentini told the Manhasset audience. “They told my parents that I may not make it to my 18th birthday because [the surgery] was very new. I may not make it my 25th birthday or my 30th. I just turned 41 this year. So what you guys are doing to just be able to promote awareness — you never know the life that you're going to touch.”

The gift of life

For decades, the Department of Motor Vehicles was the only location where New Yorkers could register to become donors, typically while obtaining or renewing their driver's license or vehicle registration.

In an effort to boost those numbers, the state got creative, allowing New Yorkers to sign up to become donors on voter registration forms, while registering for health insurance through the state and even while obtaining a hunting and fishing license. State lawmakers, Tator said, also have proposed legislation to incorporate the donor designation question on electronic health records.

Even with the changes, 85% of all donor registrants sign up through the DMV, department Commissioner Mark Schroeder said. 

“We want to do a better job here on the Island and in New York City to make sure people understand they have this opportunity to check the box,” Schroeder told Newsday.

Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, said his members are participating in a campaign to raise awareness of organ donation among their customers. He recognizes that bringing up the subject with those looking to purchase a car can be a “sensitive topic” and one that has to be managed delicately. 

“But I think your customers will think more of you for doing this,” Schienberg said. “Ultimately it could be you [who needs a transplant]. It could be someone in your family.”

Juliana Terian, president and chief executive of Rallye Motor Co., said it won't be a one-size-fits-all approach to raising the topic.

“Rather than saying, 'Are you a donor,' we need to have a conversation about the topic,” she said. “It's personal, so we're going to have to work on how to bring it up.”

For Lentini, the gift of life extends well beyond her own body.

On Feb. 14, 2015 — Valentine's Day and National Donor Day — she finally met her organ donor’s mother, Vicki Brannon.

“The first thing she did was place her head against my chest, and she said, ‘That's my boy,’ ” Lentini said. “That's the power of organ donation.”

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