Carl Lewis makes pitch for organ donation

Track star promoting organ donation at LSU’s baseball game Saturday

Editor’s note: Baton Rouge resident and Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Marx has co-written two books with Carl Lewis, who will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Saturday’s game in Alex Box Stadium. In this essay, Marx explains why Lewis’ appearance is so meaningful to him, and to many others.

Track legend Carl Lewis will not try to impress anyone with his arm when he throws out the ceremonial first pitch at Saturday’s LSU baseball game.

He’ll only be trying to save lives.

The nine-time Olympic gold medalist is a longtime advocate of organ and tissue donation. That’s why he’ll be at Alex Box Stadium when the Tigers play Florida at noon.

It will be Organ Donor Awareness Day at the ballpark. The Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (LOPA) will distribute information to fans. LSU players and coaches will wear green “Donate Life” bracelets. And Lewis — now 51 and living in New Jersey — will be an honorary LSU Tiger.

It’s all happening because LSU coach Paul Mainieri believes in using the platform of sports to promote positive messages beyond the field of play.

In a broader sense, it is happening because of a special young woman whose legacy makes me extremely proud. Wendy Marx was my little sister — my only sister — and my best friend.

In 1989, Wendy was 22 years old, working in a San Francisco marketing firm and enjoying her first year out of college. Then Hepatitis B attacked her liver. Wendy was hospitalized. Within days, she slipped into a coma. Doctors soon told us that she probably had no more than 24 hours to live.

There was only one way Wendy could survive. She needed a liver transplant.

Unfortunately, our nation had a horrible shortage of organ donors, and it appeared Wendy might fall victim to that shortage.

Ultimately, after the severity of her illness catapulted her to the top of the national waiting list for a donor, Wendy was blessed with the gift of life: a new liver and a successful transplant. The combination of relief and gratitude was unlike anything I had ever felt.

As Wendy recovered, we talked about doing something to help others. Soon thereafter, Carl Lewis, with whom I was writing a book, joined with us to create the Wendy Marx Foundation for Organ Donor Awareness.

We did programs all over the country. We formed a group called the U.S. Sports Council on Organ Donation. We distributed millions of donor cards and produced an educational video for schools. We testified before Congress and visited with President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office.

Everywhere we went, Carl and I took great joy in introducing Wendy as “living, breathing, smiling proof” that organ donation worked. The gift of life gave Wendy almost 14 years she never would have had. But it could not give her any promise of forever.

In 2003, that Hepatitis B virus, which had never entirely cleared Wendy’s body, once again flared up. Wendy got very sick. And this time, no donor could be found.

On Oct. 28, 2003, I held my little sister and best friend as she took her final breath. Wendy was 36 when she died.

Her remarkable blend of passion and purpose still inspires people in the so-called transplant community. And for almost 10 years now, Carl and I have done our best to represent her as we continue working on her cause.

We often share something Wendy once wrote in her journal: “I hope people have learned from me — not to take life for granted, to relish today. To get vaccinated for Hepatitis B, to sign an organ donor card. To be stubborn when it counts and to be honest always.”

We also share a few numbers to stress the importance of reaching people about the need for organ donors.

Right now, almost 118,000 people in the United States — more than 1,700 in Louisiana alone — are waiting for an organ transplant of some kind.

The worst number is 19. Each day, on average, 19 people in the U.S. die while waiting, simply because of the shortage of donors.

We can change that. We must change that.

When Carl Lewis takes to the mound at LSU and throws his pitch for organ donation, please remember Wendy Marx. Let’s all remember that number, 19. Let’s all commit to doing something about it.

Jeffrey Marx is co-founder of the Wendy Marx Foundation for Organ Donor Awareness. You can follow him on
Twitter (@JeffreyMarx25).
For information on organ donation in Louisiana, go to www.lopa.org.