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Athens News Matters: New Bill Could Incentivize More Organ Donations

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Even over Zoom, Athens-resident Tamara Y. Walker exudes positivity.

“I just want to make it known that you can still continue to live your life and enjoy it. We want to thrive. We don’t just want to live, we want to continue to thrive," Walker said.

That “we” she’s talking about? That includes her and other organ recipients. Walker was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease when she was 25 years old. After years of discomfort and treatment, doctors told her she had polycystic kidney disease, which meant her kidneys could lose function over time. Then, she was diagnosed with kidney cancer.

It took getting medical insurance before Walker could get life-saving dialysis treatment, which she did three times a week for two years. She subsequently applied for a kidney transplant, which was finally approved in 2014.

Seven years and one new kidney later, 48-years-old Walker is an author and an ambassador for the American Kidney Fund, where she advocates for other transplant recipients AND for state and national legislation that benefits recipients and donors. That also includes supporting Senate Bill 330, currently moving through the Georgia General Assembly.

“Everyone who is out there can potentially be a donor and save someone’s life. Whether it be a family, a friend or a perfect stranger," said Republican Senator John Albers in an interview with FOX5 last November. "God Gave us two kidneys, and we only need one.”

Albers introduced the bill at the start of this year. SB330 is special in its bipartisan support amidst a legislative session teaming with division. But beyond that, the bill — the “Giving the Gift of Life” Act — provides more protections and incentives for living organ donors in Georgia. It can also get transplant recipients help faster.

“Many people do not qualify, many people will die waiting. And that’s because there’s a shortage," Walker said.

Walker was on the kidney transplant list for seven months, a wait that could have been shorter with a living donor available. While living organ donations are legal and medically safe under most conditions, as written, SB330 would make sure that living donors aren’t denied life insurance, receive an income tax credit of $25,000 and create a new tax credit to make it easier for employers to offset the cost of paid sick leave.

The bill passed unanimously in the State Senate on Tuesday, and moved to the State House for consideration.

Albers was unavailable for comment. But regarding the bill’s unanimous approval, he did write in an email, “The GA Senate cares deeply and knows we can save lives and ultimately revenue.”

While people like Walker wait for legislation that could improve organ recipient’s chances, a more pressing concern exists just outside their front doors: COVID-19.

Organ recipients take immunosuppressive medications to reduce the body’s likelihood of rejecting a new organ. That means they’re more at risk for infection from other viruses, which could also be life threatening.

Walker takes maximum precautions to avoid getting sick. She shops at odd hours. She avoids large family gatherings. She changes when she gets home. She’s quick to avoid victimizing herself, but has a message for those around her.

“Just step back a little bit. Just give someone extra room," Walker said. "Whoever it may be, you may not know who is experiencing any type of illness because it's not written on our faces. But for everyone I would just say, just be precautious.”

People can sign up to be organ donors at organdonor.gov/signup, or by joining the Donate Life registry at donatelifegeorgia.org.