Story at a glance

  • A new person is added to the organ transplant waiting list approximately every nine minutes, and 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant.
  • Despite holding the support of 90 percent of U.S. adults, only around 60 percent are currently registered as organ donors, according to the 2019 National Survey of Organ Donation Attitudes and Practices.
  • Photo editor David Y. Lee has committed himself to ending the organ donor waiting list with the creation of The Waiting List, a registered nonprofit organization.

David Y. Lee’s life has always been intrinsically linked to the art of photography — its power to capture a moment, a movement, a feeling, a life. He once served as a member of the White House press corps and later settled into a multifaceted role as a producer, product manager and photo editor for National Geographic’s Your Shot, a digital photography community that attracted more than 1 million devoted members over the years. 

When Your Shot was eventually relegated from a thriving satellite site to a lone standing Instagram account (with more than 4.5 million followers, mind you), Lee dove headfirst into a cause that had first captured his attention back in 2008: the long waiting list for those requiring an organ donation. Since, he’s served on the Board of Advisors for Donate Life California and partnered with Sierra Donor Services in celebrating National Donate Life month. 

Recently we had the opportunity to learn more from Lee about organ donation and The Waiting List, a campaign he founded with the ambitious goal in mind to finally #endthewaitinglist for good, sharing the moving stories of donors and recipients to raise awareness for the cause.

Please tell us a little about yourself and your inspiring social media campaign, The Waiting List?

While documenting history covering the White House for Time and Newsweek and serving as an official photographer for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, I aspired to also make a social change for the future. After reading a 2008 Washington Post article about organ donation, I was intrigued. I did not know anyone who needed an organ transplant. Honestly, even though I got the heart on my driver’s license when I was 16, I had never really considered how my one decision to register as an organ donor could save the lives of eight people, and positively impact the lives of their family and friends. After learning that (at the time) only 35% of U.S. adults were registered as organ donors, I was shocked. Wasn’t everyone an organ donor? Do you have a heart on your driver’s license? 

After discovering that the DMV was no longer the only place to register as organ donor and that you could sign up online at Donate Life America, I was inspired. Unlike other health issues that need millions of dollars for extensive scientific research, I loved that I could immediately make positive change by simply having someone register to donate the gift of life. I recognized a unique opportunity to leverage social media with powerful storytelling to deliver lifechanging action – and so I started The Waiting List, a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit with the mission of increasing awareness, empathy, and online organ donor registration. 

When people care, they act. Stories inspire action. Storytelling empowers a movement for change. The Waiting List is a community of storytellers connected by the one decision to say yes to the gift to life. 

Why is organ donation such an important cause to you?

As I answer your questions today, Joni Schrantz of Denver, Colorado is celebrating another six years with her daughter Juniper made possible #becauseofanorgandonor.

“Organ donation is life where there would otherwise be death. It is light in darkness,” Joni wrote into The Waiting List. “It creates beauty from sadness. I have met many donor families who have found peace in their loved one’s passing because of the gift they have given to others. To know that their loved ones’ death was not in vain is a powerful feeling. Their loved one performed the most selfless act imaginable through their transition: saving the lives of strangers. I believe this is what humanity is at its core. It is the reason for living: love. Acts of love are why we are here on this planet. Organ donation is the ultimate embodiment of just that. To do something that will bring no benefit to yourself, goodness for goodness sake is something we should all strive for. I don’t believe there is a better way to die. Juniper’s donor will always be a part of our story and lives on in a way, through her.” 

I agree with Joni: “Acts of love are why we are here on this planet… To do something that will bring no benefit to yourself, goodness for goodness sake is something we should all strive for. I don’t believe there is a better way to die.” According to the United Network for Organ Sharing there are [109,000+] people on the organ transplant waiting list. When I die – rather than my organs wastefully decomposing with my body in the ground – organ donation will be my final act of kindness and I hope to save the lives of eight people.

What do you wish more people knew about organ donation?

Every nine minutes another person is added to the organ transplant waiting list. And 17 people die each day waiting for the gift of life. One organ donor can save eight lives. Some 90 percent of U.S. adults support organ donation, and yet only 60 percent are actually registered as organ donors. 

For the 30 percent of U.S. adults who support organ donation but have not yet signed up, the DMV is no longer the only place to register as an organ donor – you can sign up right now online at Donate Life America

Speaking of causes that are important to you, who do you think are the biggest Agent(s) of Change in your field and why?

Daniella Zalcman inspires me. She is a powerful storyteller — for many, her “Signs of Your Identity” project would be enough to receive public adoration. Not Daniella. She is leading difficult conversations that need to be had, and inspiring others to be the change in the photojournalism and media industry. In 2017 Daniella started Women Photograph, and in 2020 she helped create the Photo Bill of Rights. Daniella is dedicated to creating solutions to take action against inequality. Daniella is delivering change.

What movie, book or song inspired you this year, and why?

I love the song “Healing” by Aztec Sun, which is off their album “In the Name of Everyone.” The song was written in 2017 in reaction to the gunman who murdered concert goers at the Route 91 music festival in Las Vegas according to Stephane Detchou, Aztec Sun’s lead singer and songwriter. 

“The senseless loss of life echoed the trauma of watching the erasure of black bodies through violence; and more broadly, it was yet another example of how little sending ‘hopes and prayers’ was a sufficient way to honor the victims and prevent future similar events. At what point do we prioritize being able to mentally and emotionally change the narrative so we can heal? At what point does empathy for our fellow person become a shared priority? The refrain ‘when do we start the healing’ moves from question to a statement at the end of the song, to encourage us all to see the conversation of gun violence as one about trauma that affects us all. And it’s something we all need to heal from,” says Detchou.

In full transparency, I am friends with the band. In 2018 I was slowly drowning in a creative funk. I was suffocating in too many toxic relationships. I was emotionally and spiritually exhausted. I needed something to believe in, and someone to believe in me – and in 2019 I connected with Aztec Sun.


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I love the excitement from potential energy — and I believed in the potential in the band. They trusted me to take over their Instagram, and I volunteered my time to document the band backstage and onstage, from their weekly practices to life on the road. I don’t know how many times I heard them perform “Healing,” but each time, the refrain “When do we start the healing” resonated a little more with each new mass shooting in America. And now in 2020, there is a growing list of inequalities — racial inequality, gender inequality, wealth inequality, social inequality — that we as a humanity need to heal. When do we start the healing? 

What do you hope to accomplish over the next year? 

Over the next year, I hope to expand the reach of The Waiting List stories beyond social media channels with storytelling products including a website, podcast, and print book. The dream is to build a self-sustaining non-profit and continue creating communication strategies that amplify my mission of increasing awareness, empathy, and online organ donor registration. The goal is to #endthewaitinglist one story at a time.

If you could wave your magic wand, what one thing would you change for the year to come?

I would sit down with the 10 richest people in the United States — according to Forbes as of September 17, 2020: Jeff Bezos ($178.6B), Bill Gates ($106.8B), Mark Zuckerberg ($91.6B), Elon Musk ($83.5B), Warren Buffett ($78.8B), Larry Ellison ($77.1B), Steve Ballmer ($69.8B), Larry Page ($64.4B), Sergey Brin ($62.4B), and Alice Walton ($64.5B) — and strategize how together they can use their collective wealth of $877.6B to create a foundation of empathy in our country by amplifying a movement of public service. Imagine AmeriCorps or Teach for America with competitive salaries. Imagine establishing financial incentives making public service an attractive career option. This initiative could become an alternative to just taxing the 1 percent and their money going to the federal government, where spending accountability lacks trust. Now their “taxes” are delivering change. Not only would they be providing essential and critical services that would benefit the health of our country, they would be creating jobs that give back to the community. We cannot wait for the bureaucracy of our government to agree on how to address the problems and how to fund the solutions. If they wanted to, I have no doubt that together these 10 people could save our country.    

If you are an organ transplant candidate, organ recipient, caregiver for someone who received an organ donation, living organ donor, or organ donor family — you can share your story with The Waiting List, which seeks to #endthewaitinglist one story at a time.


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Published on Sep 24, 2020