Why a former Delray Beach commissioner hopes David Crosby's life inspires more organ donors
THE OLD AIR Force colonel was lying in a hospital bed at the Emory Liver Transplant Center in Atlanta when a CNN crew showed up requesting an interview.
It was a few days before Thanksgiving 1994 and news just broke that David Crosby, the hard-partying rock musician, was about to undergo a liver transplant at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
William Bathurst, a proud West Point graduate who served in Vietnam and at the Pentagon, was scheduled to have a liver transplant Nov. 20, the same day as Crosby, who founded two counterculture bands, The Byrds and Crosby Stills Nash & Young.
Bathurst, 63, contracted hepatitis C through an infected blood transfusion and had been on a liver-donation waiting list for six months. Crosby, 53, acquired hepatitis C through illicit drug use and was on the waiting list for 39 days, raising questions about fairness and preferential treatment for celebrities.
At the time, more than 2,000 Americans were dying each year while awaiting scarce donor organs. Now, here was a famous rock star, who destroyed his own liver because of excessive drug use, seeming to vault to the top of the line.
But Bathurst, in a brief TV interview described by his son, refused to trash-talk Crosby, as so many others would do in the coming days and weeks when the singer’s declining health made international headlines and forced an ethics debate.
His message to the CNN crew was short and simple, focusing on the greater good a celebrity can provide by shining a spotlight on the challenge of finding organ donors.
“My dad said in the broadcast that if Crosby's transplant brought attention to the need for organ donation, it was a good thing,’’ recalled Bill Bathurst of Delray Beach.
When Crosby died Jan. 18, media obituaries made brief mention of his 1994 liver transplant. But for Bathurst, the singer’s death should remind everyone about the critical role organ donation plays in keeping loved ones alive.
Thanks to their liver transplants, Bathurst’s dad went on to live another 22 years and watch his two grandsons grow up; Crosby lived almost 29 more years during which he toured and recorded new music.
“Organ donors gave us decades more with these two,’’ Bathurst, a former Delray Beach city commissioner, said in a Facebook post. “Without it my boys would have never really known my father.’’
Back in 1994, though, Crosby’s surgery certainly left the impression of favoritism.
“It does leave some of us who have lost someone with the idea that maybe if we’d had a well-known name, our loved one would've received an organ,’’ a Michigan woman whose husband died on a waiting list told a Detroit reporter.
But some experts said at the time didn't see favoritism for Crosby, in part because statistics showed 42 percent of liver-transplant patients got their organs within 30 days of being on the list.
“I suspect Crosby was the candidate on the list who was most eligible for that particular organ at that time,’’ Jim Warren, editor of the independent newsletter Transplant News, told a Knight-Ridder reporter.
Still, the debates over who places where on organ donation waitlists have never ended.
In fact, a year after Crosby’s surgery, the debate exploded again when Mickey Mantle, the hard-drinking former baseball star, received a transplant after just two days on the waitlist. (Mantle died two months later.)
William Bathurst never took for granted the gift of life that he received from his transplant operation. (His son doesn’t recall the name of his father’s surgeon, only that “he liked to wear a T-shirt that said something to the effect of ‘Liver transplant surgeons do heart transplants on their lunch break.’’’)
Before he died in 2016, he was an outspoken advocate for organ donation and a volunteer with the Georgia Liver Transplant Foundation. He often wore a pin with the message: “Don’t take your organs to heaven – heaven knows we need them here!”
And if he was alive today, Bill Bathurst said, his father would agree with his son that Crosby’s life should be revered as a celebration of organ donation.
Nearly 106,000 Americans are on the national transplant waiting list, with a person being added every 10 minutes, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration.
While a majority of Americans favor organ donation, only 58 percent are registered. Nearly 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant.
“Organ donation can give people like my father the chance to spend more time with their loved ones and allow us to enjoy more music from artists like David Crosby,’’ said Bill Bathurst, who said he posted his dad's story on Facebook in hopes of inspiring others to donate.
"Be an organ donor,'' he said. "You never know how much it can change someone's life.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote a story about organs provided by his late sister-in-law. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.