After lowered age requirement, Illinois teens register as organ donors

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Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White promotes the new law which allows 16-year-olds to register for the organ and tissue donor program.

Thousands of teenagers have signed up to be organ and tissue donors in the first months of a new law which permits 16- and 17-year-olds to consent to donate.

Jacob Lenzini, a 17-year-old senior at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, lost his father in 2014 from a brain tumor. He later met the man who’s alive because of his father’s donated lungs.

“It fills you with a sense of honor and servitude and just a feeling of being human,” Lenzini said.

Kicking off Organ Donor Awareness Month, Secretary of State Jesse White launched a campaign on Monday at the Thompson Center to highlight the new law which went into effect January 1. Since the law went into effect, 11,500 teens have registered.

The law means 16- and 17-year-olds can give consent to donate their organs, but for donors below the age of 18, procurement organizations must contact a parent or guardian for approval to harvest the organs or tissue.

About 4,700 people are on the waitlist for organ or tissue donations, and about 300 people die each year because they weren’t able to get a donated organ in time, White said. Currently, 6.4 million Illinoisans are registered donors — men over the age of 45 are the least registered demographic.

White said many people are deterred from joining the registry because of myths — such as that doctors will no longer prioritize a donating patient if they’re on life support, or that their organs will be sold.

“Please, don’t buy into the myths, sign up for this wonderful program,” White said.

Dan Lietz, a program coordinator that goes out to schools to talk to students about organ donation, said it’s up to teenagers now to fact-check the myths that are often passed down from older generations.

“In the past it was always the parents talking to the child about organ donation when they hit that age, and I think now because of technology and all this information that’s out there, it’s the other way around,” Lietz said. “The younger generation is going, ‘no that’s a myth.’”

Lietz lost his fiancee five years ago because she wasn’t able to get a kidney in time. She was also a coordinator for the organ donor program, and her donated corneas allowed two people to see.

“That opened my eyes up,” Madison Lietz, Daniel’s 15-year-old daughter said. “Organ donation is important to me.”

Lenzini agreed that having personal experience with the issue has motivated him to talk to his close friends about signing up as donors.

“I met the man who has my father’s lungs, and one of the things he talked about was how he used to have to constantly have an oxygen mask on, and now with these lungs he can go outside and play catch and go for walks,” Lenzini said. “It makes a difference.”

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