The phrase "save a life" is bandied about with dramatics by many organizations with more or less meaning. I don't mean something murky, optimistic, or vague. I want you to know with certainty that you've actually helped someone in immanent danger to bypass that danger and live.
What opportunities do we have to save lives?
In certain contexts, saving a life means taking precautions:
- seat belts
- fire and carbon monoxide alarms
- emergency lights
- working fire escapes
- emergency telephone numbers
- locks on guns and cabinets
- rails on roofs and around pools
- childproof but operable windows
- childproof drawers and toilets
- cribs passing safety inspections
Skill preparedness, such as first aid and CPR training, may save lives. Again, if you're lucky, the situations for which you've trained may never occur, please God. But if they do occur, you will be in a position to save a life on the spot, and you will know it.
Donating your organs after your death will probably save a life, or at least an eye or something, but you won't be there to know it.
On the other hand, blood, placenta, umbilical cord, and bone marrow donations save lives, and can all be done while you're alive.
Blood goes into a bank with many other people's blood; there's no telling when or where it will be used. Or indeed if it will be used. Blood is separated into three parts after donation, thus potentially saving up to three people's lives, but some parts spoil after six weeks. Different sites indicate that anywhere from 0% to up to 40% of blood donations may be thrown away, depending on circumstances and location. Typically, however, most accepted blood donations are used.
You can donate blood through Red Cross, as well as other local or national organizations.
Registering for readiness to donate bone marrow is simple and will directly save a life; in fact, your bone marrow may be the only possibility of life for a particular person who needs it. But it will only happen if a match is made and the donation is eventually required.
Governments can't afford to provide every service required for all citizens, even the critical ones. Without volunteers, programs fall by the wayside, people's standards of living decline, and people even die.
Wherever you live, you can volunteer your time, training, and skills to help directly save lives: fire brigades, neighborhood watches, suicide hotlines, crisis centers, food kitchens, shelters, emergency medical technicians, and so on, all save lives every day, and rely on civil volunteers. Some require no training at all; others will happily train you on the job.
To find volunteer opportunities near you, visit Volunteer Match or Do Something, check your local community centers, yellow pages, hospitals, and so on.
You can also volunteer for non-life saving projects that improve the quality of life of others, such as elderly assistance, tutoring, public gardening, building and restoration, you name it. The above organizations lead you to these opportunities, as do Tap Root Foundation, Cool People Care, Stuff Your Rucksack (if you're traveling), and many others.
If you can't provide life saving services directly, you can contribute money to help those who do, such as the Red Cross, the American Heart Association, the Save a Life Foundation, The Hunger Site Network (several sites), and others. To evaluate and pick a charity, try the Charity Navigator.
In addition to emergency medicine and so on, in some areas of the world people need specific items that we may take for granted, such as mosquito nets, water purifiers, and so on. Nothing But Nets and Blood Water Mission are two organizations among others saving lives by sending specific items. The people living in these area may need additional long term solutions to achieve a better life, however.
If well spent, your money could save lives. Some organizations that save lives efficiently use the money they've collected, while others have high overheads, as much as 90%. If you donate money, you need to check out how much of it is actually making it to people who need it.
The Rambam listed eight levels of charity, the highest of which is to provide a loan or gift to someone that enables them to support themselves and no longer require charity.
Sometimes money sent to countries, organizations, or people doesn't get to the hands of those who need it. Even if it does, it may be enough to carry them for a short time, but then they're back in poverty.
Some organizations find people or communities who need loans to start businesses so that they can work themselves out of poverty, hunger, and poor health conditions. Kiva is one such organization. Whether or not you consider this saving a life depends on your point of view.
Campaigning to end wars and such, voting for politicians whose policies may have a direct or indirect effect on saving lives, and so on, can be helpful.
Unfortunately, the truth is murky with regards to whether politics or campaigns really save lives. You run up against the "path not taken" problem; you often can't really and truly know what would have happened if things went differently, you can only guess at what you think may be the best course of action.
Even if you can be sure, spending a lot of time and effort on politics doesn't generally yield a high life saved to effort spent ratio. But there are exceptions. If you choose to campaign, choose your battles wisely.
As long as we're in the business of saving lives, why not save your own? Cut down on trans fats, eat more vegetables, stop smoking, and start exercising. Find ways to reduce stress and add more enjoyment to your life (I have some suggestions).
You can only help others if you live long enough to do it.