By: Martha Stoddard
World Herald

LINCOLN — Nearly 26 years ago, Janet Bemis was cradling her dying son and listening to his doctor talk when a thought came to her. She remembered a booth at the Nebraska State Fair urging cornea donation, and she turned to her husband, Milt. She asked, “Do you think we could ...” and her husband completed the thought, “Donate?” As the David City woman recalls it, “The doctor looked at the nurse and the nurse looked at the doctor and they said, ‘Yeah, I think we can do that.’”

In 1984, organ donation and transplantation were still uncommon.Two-year-old Matthew’s corneas were donated. So was his liver, the first from Nebraska. It went to save the life of a 14-month-old girl in Los Angeles. Today, more of Matthew’s organs could have been recovered. Hospital personnel are more likely to raise the topic of donation with families. And procedures are routine for matching donations with people in need.

But many of Nebraska’s laws on organ, eye and tissue donation remain the same as they were when passed in 1971. Updating those laws and eliminating unnecessary barriers to donation is the goal of a bill making its way through the Nebraska Legislature this year. “We didn’t want to fall further and further behind,” said State Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha, who introduced the measure. “Our hope is that it will encourage more donations.”

Legislative Bill 1036 would add Nebraska to the list of states adopting the latest version of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, provided by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. The act has been passed in 36 states, including all of Nebraska’s neighbors, and legislation is pending in four others.

Kyle Herber, operations director for the Nebraska Organ Recovery System, said LB 1036 makes several changes that should make organ, eye and tissue donations easier. It makes clear that survivors cannot override the wishes of a person who had agreed to be an organ donor, such as when getting a driver’s license, in a will or by signing up with the state’s organ donor registry. Nor, under the bill, could survivors override the wishes of a person who made a specific refusal to be a donor. Current law does not address the issue of refusals.

For dying people who neither agreed nor refused to be a donor, the bill expands the list of people who could decide about donating. Current law limits the decision to spouses, adult children, parents, adult siblings and guardians. The bill would add people legally designated to make health care decisions for the potential donor, adult grandchildren, grandparents and adults “who exhibited special care and concern” for the potential donor. “We have run into situations where there is no next-of-kin; there is only a care provider, and we haven’t been able to use that person,” Herber said.

The bill also provides that decisions could be made by a majority of those “reasonably available,” rather than requiring all parties to agree. LB 1036 would require first responders to look for a driver’s license or other organ donation document when called to a situation where a person is dead or near death. “Now we’re not even notified if they’re dead at the scene,” Herber said.

Under the bill, Nebraska would be able to recognize other states’ donor registries as legal consent for donation. That would speed up the donation process when a person from another state dies in Nebraska, Herber said. Current law allows people to sign up as organ donors if they are 18 or older. LB 1036 would change the threshold to 16 years old, although parents would be allowed to override the decision of a 16- or 17-year-old. In addition, the bill would allow people to register online as organ donors. People can sign up online now, but they also must send in a signature witnessed by two people, Herber said.

The Nebraska Catholic Conference raised concerns about the original version of the bill, particularly about potential conflicts between providing care for the dying person and efforts to keep that person’s organs in the best shape possible. Jim Cunningham, a lobbyist for the group, said amendments to the bill helped alleviate those concerns. The amendments strengthen protections for potential donors against receiving treatment that might harm them or hasten their death.

Milt and Janet Bemis, who two years ago attended the wedding of the girl who received their son’s liver, give talks regularly to promote organ donation. Both testified for LB 1036 at a public hearing.

“Anything we can do to make things simpler would be of benefit to people nationwide,” Milt Bemis said.