Arkansas is one of two states to earn the top rating in the American Kidney Fund's (AKF) Living Donor Protection Report Card , thanks to the wide range of important protections the state offers people who want to donate an organ. Talking to state legislators makes it apparent that organ donation is top of mind for many elected officials in the state.
Arkansas State Senator Jim Hendren did not even wait to be asked when his friend, Bruce Campbell, needed a kidney. Donating organs runs in the Hendren family. Jim's wife, Tammy, donated her kidney to a friend of a friend in December 2016.
"When Tammy donated her kidney, it was a no-brainer. She's been healthy ever since and we have been big supporters of organ donation," Sen. Hendren told AKF. "Then Bruce needed one himself, so of course I thought this was a sign that now it is my turn to donate a kidney."
Sen. Hendren went through the tests to see if he would be a match for Bruce, but he was not. So, he took to Twitter. "My friend Bruce needs a kidney," Sen. Hendren tweeted on May 5 . "I tried but wasn't able. Last night I posted about the need on Facebook. Several friends, an #arleg House member, Senate member, constitutional officer and member of the administration have volunteered to be tested. Proud of my friends and colleagues."
One of those to get tested was State Senator Breanne Davis. "I had never done that before, actually," Sen. Davis told AKF. "I just think that in life we hear our friends get horrible news, whether it's a diagnosis or something more tragic, where there's no way for us to control what happens or to help. But with something like that, we all know what he needs and if someone can give it to him he can continue living, so it was an easy thing for me."
Sen. Davis was not a match for Bruce either, but she will continue to champion organ issues in Arkansas. Her mother has one kidney and had kidney cancer as a child. This past session, Sen. Davis introduced legislation clearly stating that people with developmental disabilities are eligible for transplants. The bill did not pass, but she will introduce it again in 2021.
Bruce was eventually fortunate to receive his transplant from a deceased donor and is in good health now. Sens. Hendren and Davis both wish they could have been the donors, but they are quite happy with the result.
A big reason for Arkansas' success in organ transplant legislation, according to Sens. Hendren and Davis, is the willingness of lawmakers to work across the aisle on this common-sense legislation. Sens. Hendren and Davis are both Republicans, but they work with Democrats on this issue. Sen. Hendren also happily credits State Senator Joyce Elliot, a Democrat, for setting the groundwork.
"My family's experience with serious kidney disease has absolutely motivated my priorities as a public servant. I experienced firsthand the stress of needing to choose between my health and my job," Sen. Elliott told AKF. "No family should have to deal with that, and I'm proud to have helped pass legislation to provide more paid time off for state workers who donate an organ or bone marrow."
Sen. Elliott donated a kidney to her sister two decades ago and was very open about her experiences. She used these personal experiences to show all Arkansas lawmakers the need for organ donation legislation, and her work all those years ago continues to pay dividends.
"I'm proud to have been part of progress to earn our state employees more paid time off after a transplant, but there's so much more to do," Sen. Elliott added about a bill she led after her donation. "In a global health crisis, we need more national attention on this key issue. Especially in communities of color, we need to do everything we can to encourage more of us to understand our options around organ transplants."
AKF is thankful to Sens. Hendren, Davis and Elliott, as well as the Arkansas State Legislature, for their work to make organ transplants more accessible to the 240 Arkansans on the transplant waiting list. More than 180 of those on the waiting list are waiting for a kidney.