Ohio asks organ donors to register online following coronavirus shutdown of BMV offices

Max Filby
The Columbus Dispatch
Tyler Cummins, 33, of Columbus, is a registered organ donor and received a heart transplant in 2019. He suffered from heart failure for four years prior following a childhood battle with cancer.

Tyler Cummins first signed up to become an organ donor when he got his driver's license at the age of 16.

But after the coronavirus closed most Bureau of Motor Vehicle offices for a time this spring, the Columbus man hopes people who didn't get to register at the BMV to be an organ donor will still do so.

All but five Ohio BMV offices were shuttered from mid-March through May 25, and the closures nearly cut the number of new donor registrations in half during the second quarter of 2020.

About 53,000 Ohioans signed up to become an organ donor from April 2019 through June 2019. In that same period this year, just 28,000 Ohioans registered, said Sharon Cindrich, a spokeswoman for Lifeline of Ohio, a Columbus-based nonprofit group that coordinates the donation of human organs and tissue.

>>Read More:Ohioan’s adult heart becomes first in US history donated after circulatory death

"I think it's something you think about once a year when you're at the BMV," Cummins said. "But, then it sort of slips your mind."

Luckily, the brief dropoff in registrants hasn't led to a shortage of donations or donors, Cindrich said.

While the number of new registrants has picked back up over the past three months, Lifeline of Ohio and a coalition of similar organizations aren't leaving things to chance. The coalition, Donate Life Ohio, is launching its first online donor-registration drive on Thursday to encourage people to sign up online rather than wait until the next time they visit a BMV office.

"If there's one thing we've learned from this year, it's that we don't know how things are going to change in the future," Cindrich said.

Oct. 8, or "10/8/20," was chosen as the date to launch the "Don't Wait, Save 8" drive. That's because someone is added to the national transplant waiting list every 10 minutes, but one organ donor can save up to eight lives, according to Lifeline of Ohio. 

About 3,100 Ohioans are awaiting a lifesaving organ or tissue donation, according to the organization. Twenty people die in the U.S. every day waiting for a transplant.

While signing up to become an organ donor has become synonymous with the BMV, the statewide registry has actually only been around since 2012, Cindrich said. About 5 million of Ohio's nearly 11.7 million residents are registered donors, according to Lifeline of Ohio.

In 2019, donors made roughly 36,000 organ transplants possible across the country, according to Lifeline of Ohio.

The campaign has earned the endorsement of Gov. Mike DeWine and could come up as a topic of discussion during one of his future COVID-19 briefings, Cindrich said.

As a former U.S. senator, DeWine was a founding member of the Congressional Task Force on Organ and Tissue Donation.

The governor and his wife had a daughter, Becky DeWine, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 22 in 1993. The DeWines were asked by a doctor if they would consider donating their daughter's eyes. 

“My wife and I and our children had never discussed the issue of organ donation, and when Fran and I were at the hospital and were asked to donate Becky's eyes, we said ‘yes,'" DeWine said in a 1994 article published by The Hill. "We said ‘yes' because we knew that is what our daughter would have wanted us to do.”

Getting the word out about the online donor drive is just as personal for Cummins as it is for Ohio's first family.

Tyler Cummins, 33, of Columbus, poses in front of an Arnold Schwarzenegger statue outside the Greater Columbus Convention Center just days after receiving a heart transplant at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in February 2019.

At 2 years old, Cummins was diagnosed with leukemia and beat the disease with the help of chemotherapy. But the cancer treatment came back to haunt him in 2015 when he was diagnosed with heart failure, a likely result of undergoing chemotherapy at such a young age.

After suffering from heart failure for close to four years, Cummins received a heart transplant at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center in February 2019 at the age of 32. Eight days later, he was out of the hospital and on his way to recovery.

More than a year later, he's just thankful someone helped him when he needed it most.

"I think you don't realize how desperate people feel," Cummins said. "I always prided myself on being independent and self-sufficient. You quickly realize how much you rely on the generosity and the humanity of others, ultimately to survive."