COLUMBIA --- More than 1.2 million South Carolina drivers can point to the symbol of a heart on their driver's licenses as evidence they want to be organ donors. Many probably don't know the image means little when they die.
That red heart with the letter "Y" -- on South Carolina licenses since 1980 -- carries no legal weight and doesn't inform relatives or medical personnel of someone's intentions to donate organs.
But that disconnect will change dramatically Wednesday when a state registry that links donors to people who need transplants becomes accessible on the Internet.
South Carolina is among the last nationwide to create such a registry of organ and tissue donors, which is run by the nonprofit organization Donate Life. All 50 now either have a registry or one in the works, though not all are useful. Some don't allow an organ recovery service to access it, and 14 lack an online registry, said Aisha Huertas, the spokeswoman for Richmond, Va.-based Donate Life America.
As of July, 33.5 percent of South Carolina drivers carried a heart symbol in their wallets, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Though the agency collected numbers, it did not gather names or any information to be shared. The decision of whether to donate rested entirely with the next of kin.
"Unless the driver's license was around when someone died, it did no good," said Mark Johnson, the spokesman for LifePoint Inc., the organ recovery service designated by the federal government for South Carolina. "Now there is a legal record of your wishes."
Residents who want to be donors must go online or sign up for the Donate Life registry at Department of Motor Vehicle offices, an option they've had since last month. Donors must check the "yes" box each time they renew their license, and they'll see a new symbol on their licenses: a red heart surrounded by a circle with 11 notches -- denoting that every 11 minutes, someone in the U.S. is added to a transplant waiting list.
The registry should remove the stress of a decision from grieving family members, said former Rep. Bob Walker, who introduced the 2007 measure creating it.
"It makes it easier for grief counselors and people at the hospital to talk to the family and say, 'This is his wish,' " Mr. Walker said.
ORGANS MOST IN DEMAND
As of Jan. 2, more than 775 South Carolina residents were on a waiting list for organ donations. A breakdown of what people need:
- Kidney: 700 people
- Liver: 34 people
- Kidney and pancreas: 27 people
- Heart: 10 people
- Pancreas, 8 people
Source: United Network for Organ Sharing