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‘That’s when the mission became my mission’: A Conversation with Donate Life Northwest Interim Executive Director Mary Jane Hunt

April is Donate Life Month across the nation, and here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re acknowledging the importance of organ donation by elevating the experience of our tremendous partners at Donate Life Northwest (DLNW).


Our team spoke with DLNW Interim Executive Director Mary Jane Hunt, who took the helm at the organization a few months ago after coming out of retirement. But Mary Jane’s journey in this field began decades ago.


A long history in advocacy


“I began working with Donate Life Northwest in the mid-eighties promoting the mission and growing the staff, funding base and community outreach,” she said.


“As I look back on my journey, I have a woman named Shannon to thank. In 1986, Shannon became the first woman in Oregon to receive a heart transplant. We were about the same age, had two sons close in age and had a family history of heart disease. It struck me that it could happen to me or anyone. That’s when the mission became my mission.”


In 1975 — a year marked by burgeoning advancements in transplantation — a coalition of local healthcare pioneers, recognizing the transformative potential of organ, eye, and tissue donation, coalesced to form the Oregon Donor Program.


The program’s primary goal was to expand the region's donor pool, spearheading legislative reforms, educational initiatives, and grassroots campaigns that resonated across Oregon and Southwest Washington.


Evolving to meet the needs of the community


Fast forward to 2007, the Oregon Donor Program evolved into Donate Life Northwest — a member of Donate Life America, a national coalition founded in 1992. The local chapter reaffirmed its mission to enlighten communities about the profound impact of donation, while bolstering registration numbers on donor registries in Oregon and Washington.


“As the face of the transplant and donation community, DLNW strives to foster unity, connection, and support through programs and education that inspire organ, eye, and tissue donation,” Mary Jane said. “Because the need for transplants far exceeds the number of donations each year, it is imperative to educate citizens of Oregon and Southwest Washington about this need.”


Nestled within one of the nation’s top research hospitals, Oregon Health & Science University, Donate Life Northwest is now fueled by diverse funding sources, including grants, corporate partnerships, and the unwavering support of member agencies and partners.


The kidney connection


Enter the kidney community, a vital ally in the quest for equitable access to life-saving treatments. While dialysis is a lifesaving treatment, a kidney transplant is often viewed as the only cure for End-Stage Renal Disease.


With living organ donation becoming more common, DLNW pioneered initiatives like "Erase the Wait," illuminating pathways for kidney patients to navigate the complex terrain of transplantation. Through peer-driven programs like Donate Life WELD (We Encourage Living Donation), the organization fosters a culture of support and empowerment where lived experiences serve as beacons of inspiration — and kidney patients can advocate for themselves as they seek living donors.


“Although the decision to become a living donor involves careful consideration, living donation offers transplant candidates a potentially life-saving alternative to waiting for an organ from a deceased donor,” Mary Jane said.


A personal connection


For Mary Jane, the ties that bind to DLNW run deep. Her mother's battle with macular degeneration underscored the profound impact of donation beyond the realm of medical intervention.


“She confided with me how disappointed she was in thinking she wouldn’t be able to donate her eyes because of sight issues,” she said. “When I assured her, she could donate and her eyes most likely would benefit eye research, she was so proud — and it makes me proud that she supported the organization that I was so dedicated to.”


Legislative milestones


DLNW is leading the charge for wider education efforts and a more favorable policy landscape. Legislative victories like HB 3234 from 2021, in Oregon, which mandates organ and tissue donation education in high school curricula, signify a future where informed decisions shape living donation.


“Our established nationally recognized curriculum is used in over 100 high schools each year and we expect to serve more beginning in 2025 when the requirement goes into effect,” Mary Jane said. Anyone interested in participating as a volunteer can learn more here.



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