Meet Lauren Shields, the youngest advocate for organ donation

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When Lauren Shields applied for her driver’s license last year, the 16-year-old was pretty sure to check “yes” in the box asking if she’d like to be an organ donor.

Shields, who received a lifesaving heart transplant at the age of 9, sparked the creation of a law in her name that requires applicants to answer whether they would like to be added to the state’s donor registry.

In recent years, the Stony Point teen has become an advocate for organ donation, sharing her story as a way to raise awareness about the need for donors and visiting Albany to lobby for the requirement on the driver’s license.

Shields, along with a team of about two-dozen people, were stationed around the Dominican College campus as part of LiveOnNY’s second annual Organ Donor Enrollment Day.

The statewide initiative was launched in 2015 as a way to help boost New York’s donor statistics. Just 25 percent of New Yorkers are registered, well below the national average of 50 percent.

At a table set up outside of the school’s cafeteria — one of the busiest spots on campus midday — students were able to learn more about the organization, talk with Shields about her experiences, grab a cupcake and, most important, register to become an organ donor.

Samantha Colon, an 18-year-old from Queens, and Austin John-Huggins, 21, also from Queens, both enrolled.

“It was something I never really thought about before but I wanted to because it’s a way to help people out,” John-Huggins said.

When asked why she registered, Colon said, “If I don’t need it, then it should be given to someone who does.”

Senator David Carlucci, left, and Lauren Shields talk during an organ donor registration drive at Dominican College in Orangeburg on Thursday, October 6, 2016. (Photo: John Meore/The Journal News)

This year, 154 teams, made up of individuals from hospitals, local government, companies, transplant centers and colleges, ran enrollment drives in the Hudson Valley, all five boroughs of New York City and on Long Island, according to a LiveOnNY spokeswoman. Last year, Shields worked with a team at Manhattan College.

Before “Lauren’s Law” was put into effect in 2012, those applying for a driver’s license or non-driver ID card could bypass the question. Applicants must now answer “yes” or “skip this question.”

Supporters of the measure said the requirement helps ensure people don’t miss the section on the application. It also prompts people to consider the question, which, Shields said, might not be something they’ve thought about before.

“Many times, it is just a matter of asking someone about it because it’s something most people don’t think about until it affects them,” said Shields, a junior at Albertus Magnus High School in Bardonia.

At the age of 7, Shields went into heart failure after catching a virus that attacked her heart. After rounds of various medications and failure of conventional treatments, doctors determined the only option was a heart transplant. In early March 2009, Shields was put on cardiac and respiratory life support. Two weeks later, a donor was found and she received a new heart.

Shields said she’s generally received positive responses from people, particularly after they hear her story.

But, she said, “I hear a lot of myths, like that doctors won’t try as hard to save you if you’re an organ donor. Or they’ll pull the plug on you, which isn’t true. It’s one of the biggest concerns I hear.”

Lauren’s Law had been set to expire Oct. 3, but the law is now in effect through October 2020 after Albany officials voted in May to extend it. State Sen. David Carlucci, who sponsored the legislation, said he is working to make the law permanent.

The senator said there have been an increase in number of people who have enrolled as organ donors with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

 How to become a donor

  • Sign up for the registry on health.ny.gov/donatelife, on one’s voter registration form or when applying for or renewing a driver’s license or non-driver identification card.

Organ Donation Statistics

  • New York is 50th out of 50 states in the percentage of residents enrolled as organ donors.
  • 83 percent of New Yorkers say they support organ donation but only 24 percent are enrolled on the registry, which is below the national average of 50 percent.
  • There are 10,000 New Yorkers currently on the organ transplant waiting list. Across the country, more than 120,000 men, women and children are in need of lifesaving transplants.
  • Every 10 minutes another person is added to the waiting list.
  • Every 18 hours, a New Yorker dies waiting for a transplant. More than 8,000 people die each year in the U.S. because organs are not donated in time, which averages out to about 22 people each day.
  • Donating one’s organs can save up to eight lives, donating eye cornea could restore sight to two people and donating tissue can heal up to 50 people.

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