Looking Through Jerry Orbach’s Eyes
The organ donations I can’t stop thinking about
Before murderer Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in 1977, he made the choice to become an organ donor, offering up his eyes, kidneys, pituitary glands, and liver. His whole execution captured the public imagination — he was the first person killed after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The last words he said before he died, “Let’s do it,” inspired Nike’s iconic slogan. But his eye donation was maybe the most captivating part of all. The Adverts, a British punk band, released “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” in 1978, which imagines the recipient of Gilmore’s donation waking up in the hospital and becoming a murderer. It goes:
I’m lying in a hospital,
I’m pinned against the bed.
A stethoscope upon my heart,
A hand against my head.
They’re peeling off the bandages.
I’m wincing in the light.
The nurse is looking anxious,
And she’s quivering in fright
I’m looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.
There’s a real intimacy to organ donation — you’re putting a vital part of yourself into somebody else — and there’s arguably no body part more intimate than the eyes, both the “windows to the soul” and almost literally our windows to the world. I began thinking about the transference of eyes and other body parts in the mid-aughts, when I started regularly seeing ads for the Eye Bank of New York on the subway. “Jerry Orbach gave his heart and soul to acting, and the gift of sight to two New Yorkers,” it said in big serif letters next to a headshot of the legendary actor. “You knew Jerry Orbach for his roles on Law & Order and on Broadway. But for two New Yorkers, his greatest role was that of an eye donor.”
The Jerry Orbach Eye Bank campaign was reportedly a great success. A case study said that it increased visits to the organization’s…