Facebook: A Better Way to Get Sarah Murnaghan the Lungs She Needed

Finally, Facebook is good for something.

The back-and-forth goes on over whether a federal judge made the right decision in ordering 10-year-old CHOP cystic fibrosis patient Sarah Murnaghan be moved to the adult lung-transplant list earlier this month. Just days after that move, Sarah received a pair of adult lungs. She has now come out of her medically induced coma, and while she can’t yet talk, she is communicating with her family by nodding. After all she’s endured, here’s hoping her road back to better health will be smooth.

Sarah’s situation highlighted an unhappy fact: While the number of U.S. organ donors has essentially remained unchanged over the past two decades, the need for organs for transplant has grown tenfold. An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Americans die each year with organs that could be used for transplant but aren’t because those people haven’t agreed to donate them.

But according to a new study, the medical and ethical crisis that Sarah’s illness touched off may have an unlikely savior. According to the American Journal of Transplantation, a social-media push helmed by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor Andrew M. Cameron and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg—she of the super-hyped urge to “Lean in”—increased the number of registered organ donors in the U.S. 21-fold in a single day. “The short-term response was incredibly dramatic, unlike anything we had ever seen before,” according to Cameron.

The idea for the drive grew out of a conversation between Cameron and Sandberg at their 20th-year Harvard class reunion in 2011. Together, the two conceived of a place on the Facebook timeline where users could indicate and share their organ-donor status. When it came online in May 2012, the option included links where Facebook users could officially register their donor status with state department of motor vehicle sites.

On May 1, 2012, the first day of the drive, more than 57,000 Facebook users indicated their organ-donors status online, and more than 13,000 registered for the first time as organ donors. Though those numbers tailed off, the Journal article reports that the registration rate remained at least double prior rates throughout the time period covered by the study. So if you think Facebook is just for oversharing baby photos, think again.

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