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Jeffrey Marx, Carl Lewis and foundation on a mission to spread word about organ donation

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Pultizer prize-winning writer Jeffrey Marx received a crash course on issues surrounding organ donation 25 years ago in a San Francisco hospital hallway.

He had just left the bedside of his comatose sister, Wendy Marx.

“She was my only sister and my best friend,” he said.

Doctors, at her bedside, told family members that Wendy, 22, had about 24 hours to live.

At the time, Mr. Marx was working with Carl Lewis on “Inside Track,” the first of two books the pair wrote together.

Mr. Lewis, a track and field standout, competed in four Olympic games. He won nine gold medals, including four at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Five years later, he was with Mr. Marx at the hospital.

“He was following very closely what was going on with Wendy,” Mr. Marx said. “When things got so bad, he joined us out at the hospital in San Francisco to do whatever he could to help.”

After doctors told Mr. Marx the news about his sister, he and Mr. Lewis, in a hallway chat, made a promise to be advocates for organ donation.

“We made a commitment right then during that conversation,” Mr. Marx said on Monday in a phone interview from his home in Baton Rouge, La. “We made it to ourselves, to each other and to our families that this was an issue we were going to work on the rest of our lives. We even used the words ‘With or without Wendy.’ We had no idea if she would be with us the next day or not.”

Wendy, who suffered from hepatitis B, did receive a “gift of life”: a liver from a donor.

“Fortunately for us, we got Wendy back,” Mr. Marx said.

But that conversation in the hallway served as the beginning of the Wendy Marx Foundation.

“We found out in a fast and very difficult way about the shortage of organ donors in our nation,” Mr. Marx said. “And the problem then is nothing like the problem is now. It’s only gotten worse.”

Mr. Marx, his sister and Mr. Lewis began the foundation a few months after Wendy received the liver.

The foundation has worked closely with groups such as the American Liver Foundation, the National Kidney Foundation and Transplant Recipients International Organization. It also has conducted programs of its own in more than 20 states.

Mr. Marx, who was awarded his Pulitzer for a series of articles about cheating in college basketball, said the 25 years of putting on programs and projects, such as Tuesday’s “Donate Life! Day” at Jefferson Community College, have been rewarding. He couldn’t estimate how many he and Mr. Lewis have done.

“But I can tell you it’s been a very meaningful part of our lives,” he said.

The hepatitis that destroyed Wendy’s liver returned and she needed another transplant. A donor was never found. She died Oct. 28, 2003, at the age of 36.

“I miss Wendy every single day,” Mr. Marx said. “I miss her in many ways. But I also feel like she left me with a job to do. Carl feels the same way.”

The pair are also motivated by a growing list of people waiting for donated organs. The foundation says that each day, on average, 19 people in the United States die waiting for a transplant due to the shortage of donors.

At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Sturtz Auditorium at JCC, Mr. Marx and Mr. Lewis will speak to the community about the role people can play in giving the gift of life to others.

“I came to believe a long time ago that the single most powerful transformation that’s possible to a human being is taking something negative that has happened to you and turn it into something positive for other people,” Mr. Marx said. “It’s good enough to take something negative and turn it into something positive for yourself. But when you can take something negative that’s happened to you and turn it into something for other people, to me, that elevates the whole equation.”

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