Increasing minority organ donors
‘There are plenty of black sons and daughters who need transplants’

Seventeen-year-old Chris Moody, a senior at Redan High School, was shot in the head on March 20, 2004 after a group of teenagers with a gun followed him to his family’s Stone Mountain home. The African American teenager later died at Emory University Hospital, and his mother made the difficult choice to donate his organs. Six transplant patients benefitted, some with their very lives.

“For his mom to make that decision at such a critical time is a great and amazing thing,” says Kimberly Jacob Arriola, assistant professor in the Rollins School of Public Health’s Department of Behavioral Sciences. “We need people to do that more often.”

Arriola (above with Reverend Byron Thomas) is principal investigator on a five-year National Institutes of Health grant that seeks to increase the number of minority organ donors by developing a culturally sensitive intervention that will encourage minorities’ willingness to donate.

Due to a high incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure in the African American population, blacks are at greater risk of renal failure and require kidney transplants at a much higher rate than members of other ethnic groups. There is a lower chance of rejection if the organ is also from an African American.

Of the 85,653 people currently on the National Transplant Waiting List, 58,406 are waiting for kidneys–about 35 percent of whom are African American (African Americans make up about 12 percent of the American population).

The total number of deceased organ donors since 1988 is 85,924–65,612 of whom were white, and 9,808 of whom were black, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Arriola and Jennie Perryman, director of public policy and external affairs for the Emory Transplant Center, are working with black churches to explore attitudes toward organ donation and develop interventions that incorporate religious views. They held focus groups with clergy and parishioners around metro Atlanta, such as the Fort Street Memorial United Methodist congregation led by the Reverend Byron Thomas.

“There is some support for donation. It’s not all negative,” Arriola says. “The negative views that do exist are based on the belief that one needs all their organs to get into heaven, and that there are inequalities [of class and race] in the transplant system. One man said, ‘If all the organs are going to go to Buckhead, why should I donate?’

“As an African American researcher, I had to be honest with the participants and say, ‘You’re absolutely right, there are inequalities in the system. But we can’t use that as a reason to not contribute to the pool of available organs, because black people are disproportionately dying. We’re the ones impacted.’ ”

Kirk Kanter, chief of cardiothoracic surgery and director of the heart and lung transplant program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta/Egleston, says more minority donors would mean more donors overall, which helps everyone on the waiting list.

“There is a misconception that minorities don’t get donor organs. That’s definitely not true for hearts,” says Kanter, who has performed 156 transplants since coming to Emory in 1988. “That is very important to me. We’ve never turned down a patient who needed a heart transplant because of race or lack of ability to pay. When we do that, I’ll quit.”

Donating a loved one’s organs after they die is tough, he admits. “It’s never a nice time. The death is always something catastrophic and unexpected. But here’s an opportunity for some sense to be made of this tragic event.”

The children he sees daily “will die without a new heart. There’s nothing like a dialysis machine that they can stay on. These are people’s sons and daughters, and there are plenty of black sons and daughters who need transplants.”

Another way to increase donation rates is to encourage people to talk to their families about their desire to be donors.

“If your family doesn’t know that you’re supportive, more often than not, they err on the side of conservatism,” Arriola says. “The thing with minority families is that there is usually a larger, more extended family involved in making the decision. Even if someone is a card-carrying organ donor, and their husband says yes, but the family says no, it can create a huge conflict.”–M.J.L.



© 2004 Emory University