Did you know that patients in need of a transplant are more likely to find a genetically compatible match within their own racial and ethnic groups? It’s true, according to Dr. George Lipkowitz, medical director, Transplant Division, at Baystate Medical Center
August 1-7 is National Minority Donor Awareness Week, created to increase awareness of the need for more organ, eye, and tissue donors, especially among minorities. Now in its 18th year, the special observance honors minorities who have been donors. It also encourages others to register as donors and take better care of their health in order to reduce the number needing a transplant.
A long waiting list
Today, minorities make up more than half (57 percent) of those currently on the organ donation waiting list. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, people of most races and ethnicities in the United States donate in proportion to their representation in the population.
The need for transplant in some groups, however, is disproportionately high, most often due to a high incidence of conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes, both of which can lead to the need for a kidney transplant.
African Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics/Latinos are three times more likely than Caucasians to suffer from end-stage renal (kidney) disease, often as the result of high blood pressure and other conditions that can damage the kidneys. African Americans represent 35% of the patients waiting for a kidney transplant.
Finding the perfect match
Last year, Paul Hudson, a lifelong resident of Springfield, was among the 35 percent of African Americans waiting for a lifesaving kidney. It was his wife, Teresa, who wanted to be tested first to see if she would be a match in order to donate one of her kidneys to her husband. It turned out Paul truly married his "perfect match." He received his wife’s kidney during an operation at Baystate Medical Center on March 20, 2013.
Teresa now wears green to raise awareness of kidney health, but says it’s important to promote the need about all types of organ donation.
"I want to get the word out, especially to African Americans, that we are not stepping up to become organ donors in the numbers needed, and that is why so many patients with kidney failure are on dialysis," she said.
Teresa also has a preventive health message to share.
"Start off by getting screened early, so that you don’t have to worry about the ill effects of high blood pressure and diabetes. If you stay fit, then you will be less likely to end up on dialysis and needing a kidney transplant," she said.
The challenge in saving lives is that there simply aren’t enough minority donors. According to 2013 figures from Donate Life America, some 11,813 minority patients received organ transplants, while there were only 2,887 minority deceased donors and 1,803 minority living donors. Clearly, more minority donors are needed.
Many choose not to donate because of myths and misconceptions about the donation process.
Myth: You can be too old to become a donor.
Truth: Age is not an issue.
"Your medical condition at the time of death will determine what organs and tissues can be donated," Dr. Lipkowitz said.
Myth: Certain religious doctrines forbid transplants.
Truth: Most of the major religions in the U.S. approve of organ and tissue donation, viewing it as one of the highest expressions of compassion and generosity.
"Your decision to become a donor will make a big difference, and as one donor you can help more than 50 people needing organs or tissues," Dr. Lipkowitz said.
How to donate
Making your wishes known is easy. Potential donors need only to sign a donor card, indicate their wishes on their driver’s license, or register online through Donate Life New England. While a signed donor card and a driver’s license "organ donor" designation are legal documents, organ and tissue donation should always be discussed with family members ahead of time.
Today, more people are making a difference in someone’s life by becoming a living kidney donor, like Teresa, and offering them an alternative to waiting on the transplant list for a kidney from a deceased donor. Baystate Medical Center offers the only transplant services in Western Massachusetts for adult and pediatric patients requiring kidney transplants.
Learn more about organ donation or becoming a living kidney donor.