March 12, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 11:51 am
NONPROFIT NOTEBOOK

Journey of a lifetime | Cross-country walk targets organ donation awareness

Harry Kiernan

It seems there's no length to how far Harry Kiernan will go to help others.

In 2007, he donated a kidney to a woman he never knew; in 2010, he donated a lobe of his liver to save a baby girl. And on March 18, the executive director of the Glastonbury-based National Living Organ Donors Foundation will begin his newest journey for the cause: a 3,300-mile trip from Connecticut to California to raise awareness about organ donations.

While cross-country walks to raise awareness and money for charity are not unprecedented, Kiernan confessed it's an extreme trek for a man like him whose longest walk ever is 15 miles. "To help take [the issue of] organ donations out of the box, I needed to come way of the box [to raise awareness]," Kiernan said. "The walk needed to be across the country because this is a nationwide issue."

And it's an issue that's growing, In fact, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services figures, there are more than 113,000 Americans waiting for organs, roughly 7.5 times the number of those in need just a quarter century ago. On average, 18 potential recipients die each day waiting for organs. "That doesn't have to happen," Kiernan said. "I think more people would be living organ donors if they were more aware of the issue."

He hopes his walk can be the catalyst to raise that awareness and motivate people. He plans to focus his trip through highly populated areas and has stops scheduled in many major metropolitan areas, including New York City, Washington, D.C. and Denver, before concluding his journey as UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. Along the way, Kiernan hopes to distribute more than 100,000 organ donation cards to help educate potential donors. "It's more about raising awareness than raising money," he explained.

Those efforts, Kiernan anticipates, will include media events with local hospitals in several cities, starting with Hartford Hospital and Yale/New Haven Hospital, where he'll speak with medical students about organ donations. And he plans to use social media — from Facebook and LinkedIn to blogging — to update his progress over the course of his four-month walk.

That progress will be arduous, Kiernan knows. He expects to walk about 10 hours a day, covering between 30 to 40 miles, but he admits any discomfort he'll experience will be nothing compared to what those waiting for organ donations — and their families — endure every day. They're people — donors, recipients, and family members — that Kiernan has come to know well through his foundation's support group. Their support these days, however, is for Kiernan himself.

And while his route his fully mapped out, he confessed there are still many directions his walk could take. He's hoping, for instance, to partner with Major League Baseball to promote organ donations at games when he's in major league cities. He hopes that the documentary film that's chronicling his walk and the need for organ donors will premier at next year's Sundance Film Festival.

But mostly, Kiernan hopes when we takes the final steps of his walk, he'll have done more than traverse the nation's landscape; he hopes he'll have changed the organ donation landscape for the better.

Just don't expect him take a victory lap home. "I'm definitely taking a plane back," he said.

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