COLUMBIA -- More than 1.2 million South Carolina drivers can point to the symbol of a heart on their driver's licenses as evidence they want to be organ donors. Many probably don't know the image means little when they die.
That red heart with the letter "Y" -- on South Carolina licenses since 1980 -- carries no legal weight and doesn't inform relatives or medical personnel of someone's intentions to donate organs.
But that disconnect will change dramatically Wednesday when a new state registry that links donors to people who need transplants becomes accessible on the Internet.
South Carolina is among the last states nationwide to create such a registry of organ and tissue donors, which is run by the nonprofit organization Donate Life. All 50 either have a registry or have one in the works, though not all are useful. For example, some don't allow organ recovery services to access it. And 14 states lack an online registry, said Aisha Huertas, spokeswoman for Richmond, Va.-based Donate Life America.
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Statewide as of July, 33.5 percent of South Carolina drivers carried a heart symbol in their wallets, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. While the agency collected numbers, it did not gather names or any information to be shared. The decision on whether to donate rested entirely with the next of kin.
"Unless the driver's license was around when someone died, it did no good," said Mark Johnson, spokesman for LifePoint, the organ recovery service designated by the federal government for South Carolina. "Now, there is a legal record of your wishes."
Residents who want to be donors must go online or sign up for the Donate Life registry at Department of Motor Vehicle offices, an option they've had since late last month.
Donors will have to check the "yes" box each time they renew their license, and they'll see a new symbol on their licenses: a red heart surrounded by a broken circle with 11 notches -- denoting that every 11 minutes, someone in the U.S. is added to a transplant waiting list.
Waiting for an organ
As of Jan. 2, more than 775 South Carolina residents were on waiting lists for organ transplants.
Mark Ferguson, 46, of Mauldin, was added last summer because a rare disease has destroyed his kidneys. While he waits, he spends five hours a day, three days a week, at a dialysis clinic in nearby Greenville.
"It does keep you alive, but there are lots of side effects. Some days, you pass out. Some days, you're nauseous. Some days, you ache all over," said Ferguson, who works part-time as a radio show host. "A transplant would give me back my freedom."
On average, 45 South Carolinians on organ waiting lists die yearly, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
They include Justin Sipe, who died in February 2006 at age 23 after a year and a half waiting for a lung transplant. Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 3 months old, medical care allowed Sipe to live a relatively normal childhood --
As of Jan. 2, more than 775 South Carolina residents were on a waiting list for organ donations. A breakdown of what people need:
• Kidney: 700 people
• Liver: 34 people
• Kidney and pancreas: 27 people
• Heart: 10 people
• Pancreas: 8 people
Source: United Network for Organ Sharing
S.C.'s top donors
As of July, more than 1.25 million South Carolina drivers carried a license with the image of a heart, showing their intent to donate organs when they die. That represents 33.5 percent of drivers statewide. The top five counties are:
1. Beaufort, with 42.21 percent drivers listed as donors
2. Charleston, 40.19 percent
3. York, 39.18 percent
4. Lexington, 38.72 percent
5. Greenville, 38.04 percent
Source: South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles