Heart recipient throwing out first pitch at Fenway

On Feb. 11, 2009, Rick Segal was on the clock. Although he had lived to see his beloved Boston Red Sox win two World Series after an 86-year drought, it didn't look as though he would get to see them win another. He had been waiting five years for a heart transplant, and on the 29th day of a 30-day window for 1A candidates, he was in a car headed toward an appointment to see an end-of-life counselor.

That's when the call came -- a 26-year-old male, registered organ donor from the Boston area had died, and his heart was being sent to New York Presbyterian Hospital for Segal. When he woke up from the 14-hour surgery and was told the donor was from Boston, he asked, "So I'm still a Red Sox fan?"

On Friday night, Rick Segal will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Organ Donor Awareness Night at Fenway Park. The Red Sox and Seattle Mariners may have fallen out of contention, but the game will still be about hope -- that the 123,000 Americans who need life-saving organs will find the right donors.

Segal is understandably nervous about his Red Sox debut.

"I've been practicing with my son, Greg, at his old high school field," he said. "It's not the physical part I'm worried about; it's the psychological part. You see, people have been sending me YouTube clips of epic first-pitch fails."

That worry pales in comparison to what Rick, his wife, Monica, and their four children went through after he was diagnosed with familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare genetic condition that causes the heart muscle to unravel. He had three open-heart surgeries, but the only long-term solution was a heart transplant. He even toyed with the idea of moving to Wyoming because it had the shortest waiting list.

"The worst part of the waiting list," said Greg, "was that he stopped laughing. We could hardly recognize him anymore."

Greg, who worked in the family's investment firm, Seavest, with his father and brothers, saw first-hand the inefficiencies of the antiquated organ donation system, which was basically 52 different registries driven by the Motor Vehicles Bureaus in each state or territory.

"There had to be a way to streamline a system that was created in the 1980s, when people were far less mobile. There had to be a way to close the gap between the 90% who are in favor of organ donation and the 40% who actually register."

At a Clinton Foundation event, he told Jenna Arnold, a strategist who had previously worked at the United Nations, about what he wanted to do. "Most of the things she'd worked on at the U.N. -- climate change, women's education -- were somewhat Sisyphean," said Greg. "What interested her about my idea was that organ donation was so tangible and quantifiable."

Together they started a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with the catchy, call-to-action name of ORGANIZE -- "Jenna's idea," said Greg -- to create a centralized registry and spread the word about the need of organ donation through marketing and social media.

In two short years, ORGANIZE has already worked wonders. It has built the country's first-ever central donor registry, an easy-to-use system currently operating in some 40 states. It now has an Innovator-in-Residence position at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Verizon awarded it the $1 million first prize in its 2014 Powerful Answers competition.

"We just saw a business problem with a public health outcome," said Greg.

"I can't tell you how proud I am of Greg for dedicating his life to helping others," said his father.

As for Rick Segal throwing out the first ball at Fenway Park to raise awareness, well, that seemed only natural.

"The Red Sox may occasionally break your heart," said Greg. "This is a way of thanking of them for giving my Dad a new one."

Jenna finally sealed the deal with the Red Sox promotion department while she was in labor back in June and texted, "I'm in my 15th hour here. That should tell you how much this means to me." And a Red Sox representative texted back, "OK, you win."

So on Father's Day, the day after his daughter was married, Rick got the news that he would be taking the mound for the Red Sox on Friday.

Rick Segal needn't worry about that first ball. No matter where it goes, the pitch will be hard to resist.

To learn more, go to www.organize.org.