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Organ donations increase during huge motorcycle rallies, Harvard researchers find

Bikers rode through Sturgis, S.D., during a motorcycle rally on Aug. 8, 2020.Benjamin Rasmussen/NYT/file

A few times a year, hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists converge on small towns for giant rallies. The most famous is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, held in August in South Dakota, but such events also take place in Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, and nearby in Laconia, N.H., where Laconia Motorcycle Week is scheduled for June.

The rallies provide a boost for local businesses, but also can bring many injured patients to hospital emergency departments because of an apparent increase in motor vehicle crashes associated with the events.

Now, a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests another effect of motorcycle rallies: a concurrent increase in organ donations and transplants.

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The researchers, from Harvard Medical School, see this finding as a call to action — first, to increase public safety at the rallies, and, second, to improve education about organ donation in communities where the rallies are held, so that when deaths unfortunately occur, more can result in saving others’ lives.

“The scale of these events is really quite massive,” said Dr. David Cron, a Harvard Medical School clinical fellow in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the study’s lead author. “Sturgis, South Dakota, which is not the largest town, attracts about 500,000 people over the course of the eight-day-long event. So you can imagine the impact that might have on traffic systems and the population density during a short period of time.”

Anecdotes and some data show that traffic accidents, injuries, and traffic-related deaths increase during these events, he said.

Cron emphasizes that the last thing anyone wants is for more people to die, which is why his team calls for improved safety measures. But when deaths do occur, the hope is that more people will become donors.

Cron’s team is apparently the first to examine whether the higher number of traffic-related deaths during motorcycle rallies affects the availability of organs for donation.

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The researchers looked at the number of organ donations and transplants during the seven biggest rallies, and compared those numbers with donations in those regions during the four weeks before and after. They used data from the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients from March 2005 to September 2021.

Cron and his colleagues found a 21 percent increase in organ donors per day, and a 26 percent increase in transplants, in the regions where rallies were held. (Donors often give more than one organ.)

In practical terms, over a typical eight-day period, the region where a motorcycle rally is held sees on average nearly one additional organ donor whose death resulted from a motor vehicle crash.

Deaths from motor vehicle crashes account for just 11 percent of organ donations. So the increases associated with the rallies barely make a dent in the severe nationwide shortage of donated organs. The researchers found no reduction in waiting times for organs, or any evidence that doctors were able to move farther down the waiting list to the less severely ill during the rallies.

But the findings suggest the potential to do a better job at “translating unfortunate fatalities into a fortunate gift of life,” Cron said.

The organizations that procure organ donations should engage with the communities where motorcycle rallies take place, he said, “so that when there is a tragic death, it can, when possible, be turned into a gift of life.”

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The Harvard researchers did not gather information about the number of deaths that occurred during rallies — or the number of potential donors who went to their graves without donating. “We see a 20 percent increase, [but] we can’t say yet, could that number be higher?” Cron said.

Cron, who is also a research fellow at the Center for Surgery and Public Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, became interested in the effects of motorcycle rallies when a colleague who had worked in New Hampshire described how the Laconia rally filled the local hospital with trauma patients.

“It’s important to recognize the potential of large-scale events like this to impact public health and to have downstream impacts on organ donation,” he said.

Motorcyclists come to the Sturgis rally because they love to ride 50 to 100 miles on the Black Hills’ curvy roads, city manager Daniel Ainslie said in an e-mail. “In doing so, they log more time on our highways that put them at higher risk of an accident,” he said.

The city, with a population of 7,000, offers a dial-a-ride bus service and additional nonstop bus routes during the rally to cut down on drinking and driving, and distributes maps with suggested routes for various skill levels. The state also sponsors a website with safety tips, Ainslie said.

Jennifer Anderson, deputy director of Laconia Motorcycle Week, said Laconia also emphasizes safety, with added police presence and additional lights at sharp curves and other hazardous spots. Motor vehicle deaths during the rally “are always tragic, but it’s also a rarity for the amount of people that come in,” she said.

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Laconia Motorcycle Week attracts about 300,000 people, but not all stay in the town, which has a population of about 18,000 during the summer, Anderson said.

Rally organizers would be open to holding an organ-donation awareness campaign, Anderson said, noting that she is an organ donor, a motorcyclist, and a psychology professor. “Educating people is right up my alley,” she said.

Dr. Francis Delmonico, chief medical officer of New England Donor Services, which oversees two organ banks, said his agency has not noticed any increase in donations in connection with the Laconia rally. But he hopes Cron’s work will prompt rally organizers and motorcycle manufacturers like Harley Davidson to promote organ donation.

Likewise, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., does not experience a noticeable difference in organ and tissue donation during Laconia Motorcycle Week, according to Dr. Michael F. Daily, the hospital’s solid organ transplant section chief. He was surprised by the extent of the organ donation increase found in Cron’s study.

“Common sense would suggest that events that bring together a crowd of people riding motorcycles would increase the chances of traffic accidents and trauma admissions,” he said in an e-mail. “The fact that a subset of motorcycle riders prefer not to wear a helmet suggests that some of these collisions may not be survivable. Still, the scale of the increase was surprising.”

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Educating people about organ donation in that context risks appearing “insensitive,” Daily said. He recommends reminding people about organ donation “in the face of any tragedy.” The number of people waiting for organs far exceeds available organs, he said, making donations important “for the public good” as well as “solace for the people you leave behind, that a part of you lives on.”


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.