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Mohler Lecturer at McPherson College To Present on Altruistic Organ Donation

posted Feb 27, 2014 in CAMPUS EVENTS

Two men stand on the stage. One man is a veteran with a wife and three-year old daughter, and he was dying of leukemia. He’s not dying of it any more, thanks to the other man, who went through the physically uncomfortable process of donating his bone marrow to him.

As they embrace on stage - stuttering awkwardly and crying - it’s the first time the two men have actually met each other.

Dr. Galen Switzer, a 1985 alumnus of McPherson College, sat in the audience that day at the annual meeting of the National Marrow Donor Program, which has more than 11 million potential donors registered.

“It’s one of the most emotional things that happens to me in any given year,” he said. “The donor has been given the opportunity to save someone else’s life. This is one of the few situations where you can truly save someone’s life - apart from an emergency - and bring them back from the brink of death.”

On March 9 at 4 p.m. in the sanctuary of the McPherson Church of the Brethren, Dr. Galen Switzer will present “Helping Others: Common and Uncommon Acts of Altruism” for the 39th annual Mohler Lecture, sponsored by McPherson College.

Dr. Switzer is professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and associate director of the VA Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion. His research focus is primarily on the motivations that underlie donors’ decisions to give living organ and tissue donation to people unrelated to them - such as the gentleman who saved the life of that veteran, father and husband.

It’s a deep area of research, as Dr. Switzer has published more than 150 peer-reviewed papers in journals as well as textbook chapters, many of which are on the topic of organ and tissue donation. In particular, he’s interested in what stimulates someone to choose to help, what makes them decide to follow through on the commitment, what barriers keep others from following through and how those challenges can be overcome.

Some of the challenges Dr. Switzer has considered and investigated in his research are counter-intuitive - such as a growing number of people joining the registry and new pain-free methods of joining the registry with a simple swab of the cheek for DNA.

The problem, Dr. Switzer said, is that it’s become too easy to join the registry and there’s an element of peer pressure in many of the community drives for the registry. When someone actually comes up as a match months or even years later, however, there’s a greater risk of that potential donor backing out.

To combat these issues, Dr. Switzer was instrumental in eliminating various incentives community drives used to offer for joining the registry. He’s also made other counter-intuitive recommendations, such as requiring a two-step process - giving the information and the swab, then confirming the registration a few days or weeks later. These measures may reduce the quantity of potential donors, but the quality greatly increases.

“It goes against all good business principles,” he said. “If this were a product you were selling, you would want to make it as easy as possible to get to. But people should be making a decision based on some internal value about the need to help others.”

Dr. Switzer said his interest in altruism goes back to his parents. His mother was a nurse, his father was a teacher and together they raised 15 foster children.

“I grew up in a family of amazing helpers,” he said. “My parents were always helping someone do something. Growing up in a household like that stimulated me to think about why people help.”

Learning about the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese - murdered in New York while many of those who heard the confrontation did nothing - spurred Dr. Switzer to learn more about why people don’t help when they could. This was further reinforced when in a psychology class, he and all his classmates just stood by and watched while his professor fell to the ground, gasping for breath (he was fine; it was only a class demonstration).

“That really solidified my interest in investigating this as a career,” Dr. Switzer said.

Across the course of his career, what Dr. Switzer has concluded is that it matters little whether “true altruism” actually exists. That is, someone helping for no personal benefit at all - even psychological or emotional.

“It doesn’t really matter whether you can prove that someone got a personal benefit out of helping,” Dr. Switzer said. “What’s really amazing is that we live in a culture that tells us we will feel good if we help others.”

As Dr. Switzer heard from that marrow donor, as well as countless others, it was “no big deal” for them to give and it made them feel amazing to help.

For those who receive, though, it makes all the difference.

The Mohler Lecture is named for Robert Mohler, former dean and biology professor at McPherson College. The lecture series is the oldest at the college. Dr. Robert Mohler and Mrs. Fern Mohler established this lectureship in 1975 to bring well-known speakers in a broad array of academic disciplines to McPherson College and the surrounding communities.

The lecture is free and the public is invited and encouraged to attend.

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