Mayor Ed Lee’s vision is lasting in more ways than one. He was a registered tissue donor — which means someone in San Francisco could be walking around with our deceased mayor’s bones and corneas.
In a surreal moment, his name appeared during a monthly reading of organ and tissue donors at a Board of Supervisors meeting in January. With the consent of their families, Supervisor Katy Tang has read aloud the names since July.
“After all of our work to honor those people who gave the ultimate gift of life through organ and tissue donations, it never occurred to me that we would one day be honoring Mayor Lee for the same purpose at the Board of Supervisors,” Tang says.
Due to privacy assurances, we won’t know exactly who has his bones and corneas unless they decide to go public. But Lee’s donation shines a light on badly needed organ and tissue donations — and could encourage others to join.
About 115,000 people are currently waiting for a life-saving organ in the United States, while an average of 20 people on the list die each day, according to United Network for Organ Sharing. Donor Network West — which partners with Tang’s office — reports that nearly 700 of those waiting are in San Francisco.
“Having Mayor Lee be an organ donor is really powerful,” says Ashley Summers, Tang’s legislative aide. “People really look up to him and he could really change how people feel.”
Summers knows firsthand how critical donors are in improving or saving the lives of others — her husband spent one year on dialysis, and waited three years for a kidney transplant. Having polycystic kidney disorder (PKD) since he was 16 years old meant chronic cysts grew on his kidneys, pushing up against other organs, and made even laying down uncomfortable.
Life on dialysis for 35-year-old Charlie Paulson — Summers’ husband — was a challenge. It meant having blood cleaned by a machine for about 20 hours a week while juggling school to become credentialed as a teacher, plus work and parenting their young daughter. Constantly low energy levels and needing to be near a dialysis center made even day trips difficult, and his diet had to stay very basic.
“The absolutely biggest thing about dialysis is your whole life has to revolve around it,” Paulson says. “My attitude was to take it one day at a time.”
After preparing to wait for years, he got the living donor he needed and was able to remove his kidneys — which weighed in at a shocking nine pounds each — in October. He now has more time and energy to spend with his family, who have an upcoming trip to Disneyland.
“I could feel the difference in my body function instantly,” Paulson says. “There’s just so many things that I’m able to do that I wasn’t before.”
His donor was initially anonymous, but she ultimately contacted him after he wrote her a letter. In what Paulson describes as an intensely emotional experience, she said she was motivated to donate her kidney after watching someone dear to her suffer for similar reasons.
She’s not alone. San Francisco resident Cyndi Kahn also watched her aunt suffer until her brother donated his kidney to her in 2007. She was able to see the renewed life the transplant brought to her aunt, but didn’t think she was able do the same for someone she wasn’t related to.
It wasn’t until Kahn heard a radio DJ announce that he would be away for a while because he was donating his kidney to a station engineer that the idea resurfaced. A few weeks later, she discovered that her 24-year-old date needed a kidney and offered to be his living donor.
Kahn quickly contacted Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, filled out pages of questionnaires, got tested to determine a strong blood match, and even spoke to an ethicist in Australia to ensure she wasn’t selling her kidney. In May 2013, the surgery went through.
“It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Kahn says. “I feel like it’s given me a real purpose.”
As a kidney donor, Kahn can’t donate her liver — which regenerates — but says if she could, she would in a heartbeat. She is, however, a donor ambassador to assure others, and is on the bone marrow registry for Be the Match, hoping she gets the call.
“The need is great and the need is out there,” Kahn says. “There’s so many people waiting out there to live their full lives.”
Kahn says it didn’t cost her own health — being a living kidney donor doesn’t affect life expectancy, according to the National Kidney Foundation. But saving someone’s life can still happen in death by registering as a donor at the DMV and letting a loved one know.
“You’re not going to miss your organs when you die,” Paulson says. “All you have to do is check a box.”
For more information on organ and tissue transplants, visit DonorNetworkWest.org.
Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly. firstname.lastname@example.org | @idamoj