Attributes shortages to misperceptions, distrust, lack of information

By Nicole C. Edwards
Black College Wire


The call came in at 11:15 p.m. A kidney was available from Trisha Banks, a 48-year-old white woman who had multiple medical problems and died of a massive stroke. Her kidneys weren’t perfect, but Courtney Knight, a plus-sized, 34-year-old black woman had only a short time to live. She needed a kidney transplant.

Dr. Clive O. Callender.

The ambulance carrying Banks’ dead body arrived at Howard University Hospital. The paramedics asked Dr. Tenesia Lindsey, Knight’s transplant surgeon, if she wanted Banks’ kidney for her patient. The doctor decided to use Banks’ kidney to save Knight’s life despite the risk. She’d been waiting for 10 years.

Seven months later, Knight is full of energy, plays with her kids, and is getting her jewelry business off the ground.

It’s a scary prospect many black patients in need of organ transplants face daily because of the number of African Americans who recoil at the thought of donating their organs, even in death. For example, the average waiting time for kidneys for transplants into black patients drives transplant surgeons to consider kidneys of lower quality. Surgeons are reporting that around the country, there is a disproportionate need for kidneys by African Americans and an under-representation of African Americans as kidney donors.

It’s a situation that worries Dr. Clive O. Callender, chairman of the department of surgery at Howard University Hospital and founder of the National Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program (MOTTEP). When he first started doing surgeries there were eight African-American donors per one million people, he said.

Today, there are more than 40 per million. That is progress, but not enough, Callender said. “Blacks are winning the race from the cradle to the grave, and that’s not a race we want to be winning.”

There are five main reasons blacks are so reluctant to donate organs, according to Callender: lack of information, religious myths and misperceptions about transplantation. Callender said distrust for the healthcare system is quite widespread in the black community, fearing being used as “guinea pigs” for scientific experimentation. Racism with doctors, believing that their organs and tissues will go to whites instead of blacks is also a major factor, he said.

Callender understands these concerns and has held focus sessions with 20 to 70 people attending from all ethnic backgrounds where a medical professional, donor and recipient answer questions and dispel myths. He said by the end of these sessions, attendees voluntarily sign up to be donors.

The D.C. City Council has joined the campaign to get more black people register for organ donation. Last year, in recognition of National Minority Donor Awareness Day, which is held every year on August 1st, the Council approved a donor registry. It allows prospective donors to call the Department of Motor Vehicles or link to a Web site and sign up so they can regularly transfer organ and tissue donor information to the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium.

This year MOTTEP partnered with SAFEWAY and WPGC 95.5 FM to give free blood pressure checks in front of the supermarket. Its goal was to get at least 30 people to sign up as donors; they got about 25.

Terrence Higgins, 32, of Silver Springs, Md., has gotten the message. He donated his kidney to his best friend, 34-year-old southwest D.C. resident Sean Jackson. Having a family history of kidney problems, Jackson was diagnosed last year with kidney failure. Higgins said he never thought twice about giving his kidney to his buddy.

“He is my best friend and I would do anything for him,” Higgins said. “I looked at it as a good deed for someone I really care about. Once I found out that I would be a match, there was nothing to debate. I know he would do the same thing for me.”

Jackson said that he just mentioned his diagnosis to Higgins, but he never expected him to offer one of his kidneys. “I never asked Terrence to do something of this magnitude for me,” said Jackson, a single father of two daughters, Sasha, 12, and Chelsea, 8. Jackson had his kidney transplant performed at Inova Fairfax Hospital. “I was lying on the hospital bed thinking about my life. I spoke to God and asked him to watch over me as I went through this ordeal. I imagined my children’s life without a father and what kind of obstacles they would have to go through.”

He said that he is forever in debt to Higgins and that he owes him his life. “It is because of Terrence that I am alive and healthy. I am grateful to him for everything he has done,” he said.


Nicole C. Edwards writes for the District Chronicles at Howard University, where a version of this article originally appeared. To comment, please e-mail Black College Wire.

Posted Oct. 23, 2007

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