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A decade ago, Jeffrey Marx’s professional path sure seemed set.
His series of investigative reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1985 had exposed corruption within the University of Kentucky’s basketball program, tearing away it’s sacrosanct veneer and effectively ending the 13-year reign of Joe B. Hall. The pieces earned the then-23-year-old Northwestern alum a slew of death threats and a Pulitzer Prize. Though Columbia doesn’t keep such records, Marx was believed to be the youngest recipient of journalism’s highest honor. Ever.
The award helped Marx land book deals, even a contract with the National, the short-lived (and in some circles desperately missed) sports daily. But it’s been several years since the Capitol Hill resident played reporter.
“Just say that I’ve found something that’s more meaningful,” he says humbly and unapologetically. “A whole lot more meaningful.”
The something that made Marx realize there’s more to life than daily journalism was, well, life.
In 1989 Wendy Marx, Jeffrey’s sister, was stricken with a particularly cruel case of Hepatitis B. Within weeks of that diagnosis, the virus had destroyed her liver. Just 22 years old, she was in a coma in a San Francisco hospital and given a day to live. The only way medical science could stay her death sentence was to replace the ravaged organ with a suitable, functioning one. And then, as now, there was no manufacturer or supplier to order the necessary “part” from. Most coldly, she needed somebody to die a violent death; she needed a human donor.
At the time, Jeffrey Marx was finishing up a one-year leave of absence from his job as Washington correspondent for the Knight-Ridder chain, during which he was helping track and field icon Carl Lewis finish his autobiography, Inside Track. Marx flew out to be at his ailing sibling’s bedside, and as the situation grew grave, he decided to put the power of the press to use in hope of getting Wendy a liver. Lewis joined the Marx family at the hospital, at which point her case immediately became the stuff headlines are made of.
“All over San Francisco the news programs started doing ‘Olympic Champion Pleads for Donor’ stories,” Marx recalls. “I could see this was a story that had all the things the press craves: a star athlete, a young girl, and that 24-hour clock, just ticking away. It became a national story.”
After Lewis completed his round of interviews for all the Bay Area’s 11 o’clock newscasts, he joined Marx and—to keep their minds focused if for no other purpose—began brainstorming on what they could do to help the medical community with its organ-shortage problem.
“It was the middle of the night, nobody had slept, and the doctors had already given us ‘the talk,’ the one they give to a family to prepare them for somebody to die,” Marx says. “Carl and I just started walking together in the halls around the intensive-care unit and talking about how ignorant we were about the whole organ-donation issue. Both of us like to think we’re really informed, so right there we said that we were going to make this an issue for us to learn about, to work on. Ultimately, our dream was for Wendy to survive and be the focal point of our effort, but Carl and I made a pact right there that we were going to do this with or without her, to do whatever we could to try to make a difference.”
As things turned out, Wendy survived to help get the good word out about organ donation. Within hours of their big talk, they got the news they’d been praying for: A donor, identified only as a 9-year-old boy from the East Coast, had been found. The organ was flown in in a beer cooler in the cockpit of a commercial jet.
A transplant was successfully performed that morning, and within a few days Wendy was out of the coma. Only a few weeks after the operation, her brother and Lewis, with the help of some do-gooding volunteers who’d heard about the donor case through the media, established the Wendy Marx Foundation for Organ Donor Awareness.
Since founding the group, Jeffrey has been exploiting the same skills and contacts that came in so handy during his too-brief career as a reporter to get publicity for the neo-Marxist, donorcentric agenda. Among other things, he worked with Dale Brown, the coach of Louisiana State University basketball team and a guy he’d met on his prize-winning beat in Lexington, in sponsoring a nationally televised game between the Tigers and the then–defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels at the Superdome in New Orleans. The halftime show during the broadcast was devoted to donor awareness.
Meanwhile, Lewis, according to all concerned, has given freely of his time and name recognition to further the foundation’s goals. Earlier this year he testified before Congress on behalf of the group, and he used a meeting with Hillary Clinton during the Atlanta Olympics to bring more attention to the donation issue.
“I’m not going to say this has all been pleasant, because at the time I first met Wendy, she was in a coma, and that obviously wasn’t pleasant,” says Lewis from his Houston home. “But there’s no question that the whole experience has changed me in ways that I can’t really put into words, in ways that are profound and far-reaching. I was right there to see this terribly difficult period for Jeffrey and his family, and to be able to work to change that situation, well, I look at it as a great opportunity for somebody in my position. Basically, I feel lucky to get a chance to make a difference.”
The fact that Lewis—the greatest track and field athlete of his, and probably anybody’s, generation—has rarely been given the benefit of the doubt by the American media (the Olympic relay flap, etc.) is an obvious source of frustration for the Marxes.
“I’m not going to pretend that I can be objective about Carl, because it’s impossible to be objective about somebody who goes way out of their way to do something to save your life,” says Wendy, now 29 and working in San Francisco as a programming manager for an Internet service provider. “But it’s hard when I read or see reports about Carl by people that don’t know him, reports that have so little to do with the real Carl Lewis.”
Jeffrey Marx concedes that the press’s refusal to expound on the selflessness of the short-distance runner has dimmed the chances that he’ll ever make journalism his profession again. The tendency of the press to tear down the recipient in some high-profile cases is a sore point with Marx.
“You start to look at the media different when you’re on the other side of the ink,” he says. “I’ve seen too much—with Carl, with the Mickey Mantle and David Crosby [transplants]—to feel the same about journalism as I used to. And that’s sad.
“But I don’t want to come off as some kind of bitter or whiny ex-journalist, because, well, that doesn’t tell the story. I still love newspapers. The bottom line really is that I’ve got other things now that I’d rather do. Believe it or not, I’ve found something I think is more important.”
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there were 3,922 liver transplants performed in the U.S. in 1995, or nearly twice the number performed the year the Wendy Marx Foundation was founded.
On Friday, Oct. 4, Marx and Lewis will host a fundraiser for the Transplant Recipients International Organization at the California Pizza Kitchen in Chevy Chase. For information, call 202-546-7270.