The Greatest Gift Good deed: Mother's loss is eased a little by the pride of knowing her son's organs saved several lives.

March 27, 1996|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Thinking back, Dottie Jacobs believes her son was brain dead before anyone found him on the road in Mount Airy, where his pickup truck had smashed into a tree. And when he was airlifted to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center with his heart still beating on its own, she thinks it was God's way of making sure Jake could do one last good deed.

She waited at the hospital three hours while doctors worked on him. "So when the doctor came out and told us there was no blood flow to the brain, that he was brain dead, of course it was a terrible shock," she says.

"Once it sunk in, that his soul was not there, that he was an empty vessel that is just pumping in there, I couldn't get the words out fast enough," she says. "I told the nurse, 'He was an organ donor,' and she said, 'Oh honey, you don't have to think about that yet.' I said, 'Yes we do. If you can't keep that body alive, you need to get the team moving. Hey, this was something he wanted, get moving.' "

She was sure the nurse thought she was some kind of ghoul. But she and Jake had talked about organ donation just two weeks earlier, and he had told her he "wanted maximum use of what was left."

George Frederick "Jake" Jacobs Jr., a 26-year-old former Navy seaman, was one of 5,000 people across the country and 75 people in Maryland who donated their organs last year.

He died the day before Thanksgiving when he swerved his pickup truck to avoid hitting a deer and ran into a tree near his parents' home in Mount Airy, police said.

Five people's lives were saved and two people regained partial sight because he told his mother he wanted to be an organ donor. But 44,000 more people are still waiting for kidneys, hearts, lungs, livers, corneas and other body parts. Nationally, the organ shortage has become so severe that twice as many people died waiting for transplants last year than five years before.

In the past, efforts to find donors amounted to issuing donor cards or urging people to check a box on a license application. But a new national group, the Philadelphia-based Coalition on Donation, has begun advertising and education campaigns to combat misconceptions about giving and encourage more of it. One goal is to get families to talk about it, because when a death occurs, family members don't feel comfortable making a decision for someone else, says Howard Nathan, who is leading the campaign.

"Even if they (the deceased) hadn't signed a donor card in the past, but had mentioned it after watching "ER," people remember that five-second conversation," says Mr. Nathan, executive director of the Delaware Valley Transplant Program and a national expert on donation.

Less than 1 percent of the 2.2 million people who die every year in the U.S. are even eligible to donate. They must be declared brain dead in a hospital, where their organs can be kept functioning artificially until a transplant takes place. Potential organ donors usually die suddenly, often from accidents, murders or aneurysms.

About a third of the time, their grief-stricken families aren't approached about donation, according to a study published this week by the Partnership for Organ Donation in Boston and the Harvard University School of Public Health. And of those who are, only half say yes. They refuse for all kinds of reasons, ranging from the way they or their loved one was treated by the hospital to a lack of understanding about brain death.

Nearly 50 percent of non-donor families thought brain death was something you could recover from, said the study, the first to examine families who refuse to donate.

Other families don't give because they believe the organ donation system is unfair.

"People have feelings that only wealthy people get a transplant. They see Mickey Mantle, [former] Gov. Casey in Pennsylvania, Larry Hagman. There is a common feeling, especially among low-income people, that they wouldn't be able to get a transplant when they need one," says Ann Klassen, an instructor in health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, who is studying 400 Maryland families asked to donate organs.

And something else may work against donation -- the facelessness of it all. Normally donors and recipients are cloaked in anonymity to protect their privacy. But the policy also prevents the public from learning about the ordinary lives saved by people like Jake Jacobs.

Normally, no one would have heard about his extraordinary gift. But this newspaper inadvertently published his obituary adjacent a story about a 42-year-old teacher who received his heart in a life-saving transplant at Johns Hopkins on Thanksgiving Day.

"It was the first time people had ever seen [a transplant] where both parties were real to them," Mrs. Jacobs says.

The response was incredible. She and her husband, George Sr., got letters from people praising her son and promising to become donors themselves.

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