Health & Fitness

Surge in immigrant driver’s licenses may have spurred more organ donors

Long-debated legislation that granted driver’s licenses to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants may have sparked a recent spike in organ and tissue donor registrations and donations in California, state officials say.

Since Assembly Bill 60 went into effect in January, the state’s organ and tissue registry, operated by the nonprofit organization Donate Life California, has seen its donor list grow by 30 percent.

At the same time, Sacramento saw a 14 percent surge in organ and tissue donations from deceased people in the first half of this year, compared to the average for the period over the past three years, according to Sacramento’s organ transplant network Sierra Donor Services. Overall, California witnessed an 8 percent rise in deceased organ donations in the same period, found the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Demand for organs remains high across the state. More than 23,000 Californians, including 1,300 people in the Greater Sacramento region, remain on transplant waiting lists, according to Sierra Donor Services.

“The tragic fact is that one in three of those people will die while waiting for a transplant,” said the transplant network’s spokeswoman Tracy Bryan. “But the rising number of local and statewide donations provides real hope.”

A decade ago, the state required all Department of Motor Vehicles offices to let drivers sign up for the organ donor list when they registered their vehicles. Within a year, California saw the list soar from 9,000 to more than 1 million people, said DMV spokesman Armando Botello.

Botello believes the most recent registration surge was linked to new license holders taking advantage of AB 60’s passage.

“There’s no way to directly prove it yet, but I think the bill has played quite a significant role in increasing donor numbers,” he said.

Nonprofit groups have pushed to educate and facilitate donor registration, especially among Hispanic groups, in attempts to further grow the state’s registry list.

By early September, approximately 500,000 of California’s more than 2 million undocumented immigrants had been issued driver’s licenses, Botello said. The DMV expects that number to increase by at least 1 million people over the next two years.

Because the majority of those new license holders are Hispanic, AB 60 may directly benefit as many as 8,800 Hispanic Californians awaiting organ and tissue transplants, according to findings by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Hispanic donors are more likely to match with individuals of Hispanic descent because of compatible blood and organ types, explained Donor Network West spokeswoman Noel Sanchez.

“Any boost in registrations could directly impact those Hispanics waiting for transplants,” Sanchez said.

This year’s surge is the state’s biggest since a 2012 campaign letting Facebook users display donor status on their profiles, according to Anthony Borders, a spokesman for the Northern and Central California transplant network Donor Network West.

California now accounts for 12.3 million organ and tissue donation registrants – 95 percent of whom came through the state Department of Motor Vehicles, according to Donate Life California CEO Charlene Zettel.

The work of spreading the word about organ donations is personal for Matt Flint, a Cosumnes Fire Department fire inspector and founder of the Sacramento-based Joe 238 Foundation, which educates Hispanic communities about organ and tissue donation.

He said his closest friend, a Mexican American police officer and registered organ donor, died of a brain aneurysm while on duty at age 24. His friend chose to donate his organs; Flint later listened to his friend’s heart beat in the chest of a 55-year-old man whose life was saved by the donation.

“There’s a huge demand out there for organ donations,” said Flint. “Who wouldn’t want to help save lives?”