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Writer's Appeal Spurs Organ Donations

Writer Frank Deasy holds the award for outstanding writing for a miniseries, movie or a dramatic special for his work on "Prime Suspect: The Final Act" at the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards Sept. 16, 2007. Deasy delivered an impassioned plea for organ donations on Irish radio last week, spurring thousands of new donor registrations. He died three days later.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Frank Deasy made his living as the Emmy-winning author of gritty television dramas like "Prime Suspect." But with his final acts and words, the Dubliner inspired a nation to become organ donors - and may have saved scores of lives even as he lost his own.

More than 20,000 have registered to become donors after Deasy's hourlong appeal last week on Irish national radio, during which he described the "invisible death row" of thousands awaiting salvation through surgery in Ireland and neighboring Britain. Health officials say the unprecedented sign-up could mean an extra 15 people a year in Ireland get a second chance at life.

"There's a ticking clock. If the tumor grows beyond a certain size, they can't transplant," Deasy said in his Sept. 14 interview. "It's a very strange situation of living under an extreme threat, but also under the great promise and hope that transplants offer."

Time ran out three days later for Deasy, 49, just as his own reprieve from death appeared to be at hand. He bled to death as doctors in Scotland, the writer's home since the mid-1990s, tried to replace his tumor-riddled liver. Deasy had spent seven months waiting for an organ suited to his unusual B blood type.

From Irish Health Minister Mary Harney downward, Ireland has pledged to do a better job in cooperation with Britain to encourage organ donation. Britain and Ireland share an organ-donor pool, but neither country has national identification cards, nor do they put organ donor wishes on driving licenses - leaving relatives to take snap decisions in the vital first hours after a loved one's death.

Harney praised Deasy "for speaking out publicly about his illness and the importance of organ donation. I found his openness and courage particularly moving."

She noted that, in the past year, only 13 of 138 potential donors had registered for donor cards. A total of 81 deceased donors provided 214 organs for transplant - barely a third of those waiting months, even years, on lists for livers, hearts, lungs and kidneys.

In Britain, nearly one in five people waiting for a new liver dies before one comes along. The National Health Service says about 380 people, including more than 20 children, are on the waiting list.

Since Deasy's radio appeal, the Irish Kidney Association said its mobile text service for registering as a donor has been swamped with more than 11,000 callers, nearly quadruple the record for annual appeals. Many requested multiple donor cards for their whole families.

"Frank was so eloquent in the way he put his appeal, it really stirred people into action in a way that hasn't happened before," said Irish Kidney Association chief executive Mark Murphy. For the past three decades his charity has been the main source for organ-donor cards in Ireland - a country whose health system has no agency to oversee donations.

Murphy estimated that the enlarged donor pool would boost Ireland from its current rate of 18.4 donors per million to 20. He said that would provide, on average, six extra viable donor bodies supplying organs to 15 patients a year over the coming decades.

Murphy, who spoke live on air with Deasy during his hourlong interview on Irish broadcaster RTE's "Liveline" phone-in show, said nobody who heard the screenwriter's voice could believe he was just days from death.

"The shock to everyone was that Frank said himself he felt so well," Murphy said. "It wasn't as if he was looking for a set of lungs and was fighting for breath. He sounded great."

Murphy said only about one in a hundred transplant patients dies on the operating table. "But Frank himself was making the point that the cancer was getting to the point where the tumor would become too large and he would become untransplantable. The doctors don't really know until they open you up just how bad it is," he said.

Joe Duffy, the "Liveline" presenter who dedicated most of his show last week to organ donation, said he had sent Deasy newspaper clippings praising his impact shortly before he went into surgery.

"Frank was over the moon. Absolutely delighted," said Duffy, who was a classmate when both he and Deasy studied social work in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s.

"It feels like there is no justice, no balance," said Duffy, who noted that his college friend left behind a wife and three children: an 11-year-old daughter and twin boys aged 9.

Deasy won a screenwriting Emmy in 2007 for the final installment of Britain's "Prime Suspect" detective series starring Helen Mirren. At the time of his death, his crime-family miniseries "Father and Son" had just completed its debut run on Irish television. His BBC Films screenplay about a Jewish doctor working in the Gaza Strip, again starring Mirren, was just weeks away from the start of shooting.

But Deasy found time to write about the crisis in organ donation that had become his "other" life. His column in a British newspaper, the Observer, spurred Duffy's invitation on to his Dublin program the next day.

"Men, women, children, our lives hang on the generosity of a stranger. You are that stranger," he wrote. "If the world is in each one of us, you have the power to change the world."