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Who can afford $250,000 for an organ transplant? Practically no one, of course. Who has the strength to make emotional public appeals for money while a loved one lies near death? Some. But should they have to?

Pioneering surgeon Thomas E. Starzl thinks not. He joined the wife of a heart transplant patient this week in testifying before a Senate Finance subcommittee on behalf of legislation to create a taxpayer-financed fund for organ transplants."I can tell you from direct experience that these are desperate ventures which take a frightful psychological toll on families and patients," said Starzl, a professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh. He said families are being forced to advertise a dying child or adult in hopes that the public will respond with compassion.

Sherry Clifton of Silver Springs, Md., told the panel that she contacted the United Way, Red Cross, news organizations, and even a professional football team to try to raise the $30,000 deposit on a heart transplant for her husband, Hardie Clifton, in 1984. Finally, a call to the White House got her in touch with a public liaison who got the State of Maryland and other sources to help her pay the bills, which amounted to more than $200,000.

Mrs. Clifton says her husband received his new heart "only because I was strong enough to fight. Everyone does not have the same strength."

Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., is sponsoring the transplant legislation. He says it's needed because transplant financing is "a crazy quilt" of insurance coverage.

While Medicare pays for all kidney transplants, its support for other transplants is limited, and coverage varies widely from state to state.

The problem is real, but is the solution advocated by Starzl, Clifton, and Bumpers best in this day of deficits and budget cuts?

Yes, unless you're a firm believer in the survival of the fittest attention-getters.

But even if Congress passes Bumpers' bill, it's likely to be some time before a program is in place. In the meantime, how about establishing a private foundation to ease this financial burden?

It's time to take compassion on the families of transplant patients, too.