In terms of between-song banter, Deadheads rarely heard much more than “thank you” in the nearly three decades the Grateful Dead conquered the American touring circuit. And in his post-Dead onstage career, bassist Phil Lesh hasn’t exactly become gabby. Yet there comes a time in each of his concerts when the music momentarily falls silent so he can engage fans in something very dear to his heart — the importance of becoming an organ donor.
“Save the life of someone you’ll never meet,” he can often be heard telling fans.
Lesh has first-hand knowledge of the benefits of organ donation. After years of living with Hepatitis C, he underwent liver transplant surgery in December 1998. Lesh, 62, received the liver of a man named Cody during a roughly four-hour operation at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. He knows little about Cody — only that he was a young man who died in some sort of automobile or bicycle accident — but the bassist says he prays for him every night. Lesh dedicated the first Lesh & Friends studio album, this year’s “There and Back Again” (Columbia), to Cody.
After the procedure, Lesh says everything in his life became more special. “That hit me like a sledge hammer the first time I went out and looked at a sunset after the operation,” he says. “The sunset. A stream of water. A leaf falling from a tree. A cloud passing over. Nature! Watching your kids play baseball — hey, the deepest thing in the world.”
About four months after his operation, Lesh was back onstage. At his very first show, he began preaching the positives of being tested for Hepatitis C (a virus that inflames the liver and infects people in various ways, including through blood transfusions or the shared use of a needle) and becoming an organ donor.
At a couple festivals, he even signed fans’ organ donor cards, used to identify people as donors in lieu of the stickers often affixed to driver’s licenses. The cards, available at organdonor.gov, are required to be signed by two witnesses, and Lesh has been a witness for hundreds at his shows and he says he’ll be doing it again this weekend (Aug. 3-4) at Terrapin Station: A Grateful Dead Family Reunion. As previously reported, the much-anticipated festival in East Troy, Wisc., will feature the first full-fledged reunion of the surviving original members of the Grateful Dead since Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.
If some fans attain donor cards simply for Lesh’s signature, it won’t bother him. “That’s fine,” he offers. “I don’t care, as long as they’ve got the donor card.” He reminds that as important as it is to attain a donor sticker or donor card, it’s equally important to notify your family that you want your organs donated. “They’re the ones that are going to have to make that decision; you won’t be there to confirm it,” he says.
Like most people, Lesh says he didn’t give much thought to being tested for Hepatitis C or being an organ donor prior to his operation. “I don’t know who does, and that’s one of the reasons that I’m asking people to become organ donors — you don’t really think about it until you need it,” he says. “One of the things that I say to people is, ‘If you needed an organ, or if someone you loved very, very much needed an organ — and there was one available — would you accept it?’ The answer, of course, is ‘yes.’ And if the answer is ‘yes,’ then fair is fair, you should be a donor as well.'”