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After 28 years advocating for organ donation, Wilsonville resident Mary Jane Hunt is set to retire

When Mary Jane Hunt was 21 years old, she was looking at her best friend’s driver’s license and noticed something unusual.

“Oh my gosh, you’re a donor?” Hunt asked. “What does that mean?”

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - The science of organ donation has come a long way since Mary Jane Hunt's career began 28 years ago, and now more than 2.2 million are registered in Oregon alone.

Hunt’s friend explained what it meant to register as an organ donor — a concept that was foreign to many at the time. Hunt was intrigued, but it wouldn’t be until years later that she understood the irony of that particular conversation.

Nonprofit work has always attracted Hunt, a Wilsonville resident, but it wasn’t until she began her work with Donate Life Northwest — 28 years ago — that she found her true calling. Hunt eventually rose to Executive Director at the organ donation advocacy group, and as she prepares to retire this summer, she looks back on her work with a great deal of pride.

“I wanted to be part of an organization that has such a dramatic impact, and an organization that not a lot of people know about,” Hunt said. “(28 years ago) not a lot of people knew about us. I love that challenge of being able to educate people, giving new information and most importantly seeing all these people who have received those gifts. That has really been a tremendous impact.”

When Hunt started her work in the organ donation field, Donate Life Northwest was operating under the name Oregon Donor Program, despite having a reach that extended to Southwest Washington. Far from becoming the widely accepted practice it is today, organ donation was a foreign science to many of the people she spoke to as an advocate.

“There was just a lack of knowledge — it wasn’t very public,” Hunt said. “I would go out and speak to groups and would always ask, ‘does anybody know someone who’s had a transplant?’ And occasionally someone would raise their hand.”

The science, especially when it came to hearts, livers and lungs, was still considered experimental at the time. Thus, many potential donors still reacted the way Hunt herself did when she considered the idea back at the age of 21.

She and her fellow advocates had their work cut out, but that only made Hunt more persistent. By the time Hunt was named the program’s executive director in 1990, organ donor registrations in Oregon had pushed to 727,500.

It wasn’t until 2007, however, that Hunt oversaw what she believes to be her proudest accomplishment at Donate Life Northwest: the creation of an electronic donor registry for the entire state of Oregon, which immediately gathered more than 1 million donors when the DMV transferred its data to the registry.

Around that same time, organ procurement agencies began to recognize driver’s licenses as forms of consent.

“Before, we had those paper donor cards,” Hunt said. “They weren’t ever utilized at the hospital really — no one’s looking at your wallet or your ID when they’re trying to save your life ... what our law has always said is that the code on a license is legal consent, but procurement agencies did not accept that code until the registry was created.”

With that foundation in place, donor registration grew exponentially. Today, more than 2.2 million people are registered in Oregon.

“We’ve come a long way from paper donor cards to the electronic registry,” Hunt said. But there’s so much more that needs to be done because of the number of people waiting. The hard part about all this is there’s still a waiting list of over 120,000 people nationally.

“While we can say how successful we are building our registry, we still have people dying waiting for a transplant.”

In her years of work, Hunt has met patients and families from every side of the issue - donors and recipients, grateful and grieving relatives.

“The impact from the donor families has been quite significant to me,” Hunt said. “I could sit here and name hundreds of individuals that I’ve met over the years that are so proud of what their love ones’ gifts have done, and we’ve been able to share their loved ones’ stories with the public. That’s been very impactful on me.”

Hunt has also enjoyed some of the field’s brightest success stories — including that of West Linn resident Jack Snook. Snook, a former fire chief at Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, recently celebrated his 20th anniversary since receiving a heart transplant in 1993.

In the years after the transplant, Snook became heavily involved with fundraising efforts at Donate Life Northwest and eventually served a term on the board of directors. During that time, he and Hunt became friends.

“Talk about an amazing guy, huh?” Hunt said. “I’ve met Jack and so many other recipients throughout the years that it always reminds me that it can happen to anyone. Regardless of your health, regardless of your lifestyle, you may be faced with needing a transplant some day.”

As she prepares to retire June 30, Hunt has one more goal in mind. As part of the Mary Jane Hunt Leadership Fund, donations made through Donate Life Northwest’s “Match Campaign” will be equaled by Hunt and the nonprofit’s board members.

“My hope is that those funds will help continue programs, as well as be part of an endowment program,” Hunt said.

To donate, visit http://donatelifenw.org/match or write “Match” on a check and send it to Donate Life Northwest, PO Box 532, Portland, OR 97207.

By Patrick Malee
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