CHICAGO (Reuters) - Tired of the long wait for a new kidney, Michael Shelling, a 50-year-old video game marketing consultant based in San Diego, decided to take a more active role in the search.
About three months ago, he decided to tap into his social network by setting up a Facebook page to get the word out to his friends, and their friends, that he needs a new kidney and, by the way, his blood type is O.
The search may have paid off. A potential donor is going through testing to see if they are a match.
It is the kind of scenario Facebook hopes to foster. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg put out the call earlier on Tuesday to encourage the social network’s users — more than 900 million — to speak up if they are organ donors and display it on their personal pages.
“We think that people can really help spread awareness of organ donation and that they want to participate in this to their friends, and we think that can be a big part in helping to solve the crisis,” Zuckerberg told ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” program on Tuesday.
There are currently 92,102 people in the United States waiting for a donor kidney — the organ that is in greatest demand — according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Last year, only 16,812 kidney transplants took place in the United States, with the majority of those donated from deceased donors.
That disparity leaves many like Shelling waiting in line for a donor organ to become available, a process that can take three or four years, said Joel Newman, a spokesman for the United Network for Organ Sharing.
In 2007, Shelling was diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease as a result of chronic high blood pressure. He undergoes home dialysis to clear excess fluid, minerals and wastes from his blood, but he longs for the day when he can do without it.
So, he decided to conduct his own search for a donor.
“With the waiting list, that tells you there are more people out there that need organs than are willing or able to donate. Some of that has to do with a lack of awareness,” Shelling said.
In many cases, people simply do not think about becoming an organ donor, Newman said. He hopes Zuckerberg’s call to have people add their donor status to their Facebook Timeline will increase awareness of the need for organ donors.
“Organ donation is generally something many people think is a wonderful thing, but many people just haven’t made that decision,” Newman said.
In a blog post, Zuckerberg and Sandberg said they were inspired by how members have used the social network in times of crisis.
“Last year in Missouri, Facebook users tracked down and returned treasured mementos to families who thought they’d lost everything in the Joplin tornado. In Japan, people used Facebook to locate family and friends following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Smaller acts of kindness happen millions of times a day on Facebook,” they wrote.
Surveys show that as many as 90 percent of Americans support organ donation, but only about a third of the 200 million licensed drivers in the United States actually tick the box indicating consent to being an organ donor.
In the United States, a person dies waiting for a transplant every four hours. While the need for organ donation continues to rise, donation rates have been nearly flat for the past 20 years.
(Official correction on number of kidney transplants in 2011, paragraph six)
Additional reporting by Nicola Leske and Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Maureen Bavdek