LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Did you know that an organ donor can save up to eight lives and enhance over 75 other lives through tissue donation? However, to be an organ donor, one has to be registered. Plus, an organ has to be a match for the organ transplant recipient.
That’s why Donate Life Kentucky (DLK) is raising awareness within the Commonwealth’s Black communities about organ donation and transplantation with a new campaign called “Be the One.” DLK said in a news release, provided to Spectrum News 1, “that while populations from diverse backgrounds make up 60% of the national transplant waiting list; these cultural groups are less likely to register to be an organ donor.”
Louisville resident, William Powell, said there are two main factors that allow him to race 5Ks with his wife, Charmaine Powell.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this, one if she wasn’t by my side helping push me and get me healthy again, but, without my kidney transplant, this would’ve been very difficult to do,” Powell told Spectrum News 1. The first 5K he ran was in 2020, three years after his kidney organ transplant.
“The best part about it is I’m a slow runner, but he’s a fast walker so we kind of finish close to the same pace. So it works out,” Charmaine said while laughing.
Powell’s life was heavily impacted before he had his organ transplant.
“In some instances, I could probably walk from here to the driveway without getting fatigued,” the 49-year-old explained.
In 2010, Powell was diagnosed with kidney failure. Powell said that according to his doctors, his kidney failure was due to stress.
It took two years for Powell to be eligible to get on the kidney transplant waiting list. Then, he waited another five years to receive the call that saved his life.
On November 5, 2017, Powell had his kidney transplant surgery, seven years after his diagnosis of kidney failure. Powell was on dialysis 12 hours per week during those seven years.
“I try to explain to people, it’s like running a marathon and then still trying to do what you need to do. Your legs are weak; your breath is short, and you have no energy,” Powell explained.
Powell doesn’t know anything about his organ donor, only that she was a young woman who allegedly overdosed on prescription drugs.
“Most transplants that are performed in this country actually are between people of different races and ethnicities. Those transplants tend to do just fine and, you know, it’s good,” UofL Health-Jewish Hospital’s Trager Transplant Center’s Director Dr. Christopher Jones told Spectrum News 1.
Jones, who is a transplant surgeon, thinks more transplants can be done if more people from the same ethnicity donate.
“And this is the reason why. So in order to be a transplant recipient, you have to match, right, someone else, and the match becomes that much easier when it’s from somebody of your same community and ethnicity,” Jones explained.
Jones told Spectrum News that in order for an organ to be a match between a donor and a recipient, their blood types and the organ’s size have to match. In addition, the organ’s proteins, which are markers found on most cells in a body that allow one’s immune system to recognize which cells belong and which do not, have to match.
"So people who match a little more closely, and maybe of the same ethnicity or race, those little proteins look very similar to the recipient who is going to receive the organ, and so your chances of rejection become more decreased,” Jones said.
According to data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), which is used by all organ transplant programs in the United States, there are 958 candidates (as of Sun., Nov. 7, 2021) waiting for an organ transplant in Kentucky. Out of 958 candidates, about 72% are white and 23% are Black.
Currently, there are over 2.6 million people on Kentucky’s organ donor registry, according to internal data provided to Spectrum News by Donate Life Kentucky. However, since 1988, a total of 5,272 Kentuckians, including both deceased and living people, have had their organs successfully donated. About 89% of those donors are white and 8% are Black.
Jones said within the African American community, the main reason people don’t register as organ donors is because of distrust with the medical community.
“And it’s just dispelling that myth that the physicians won’t take care of you because they want you to donate your organs,” Jones said. “So if you are in a car accident, or if you were in a house fire, or something happens to you, and you are rushed to the hospital, the physicians just kind of let you languish so that they can get your organs, and it’s a hard thing to break. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about it, but you have to walk the walk and talk the talk.”
Talk the talk, walk the walk, that’s something the Powell family knows well because when they cross the ultimate finish line, they’ll do it as registered organ donors.
Donate Life Kentucky is made up of organ, eye and tissue nonprofits in Kentucky, and the nonprofit is dedicated educating about organ donation and encouraging everyone to become registered donors.
To learn about more becoming an organ donor, visit Donate Life Kentucky’s website.
You can register online to become an organ donor here.
Currently, every Kentuckian obtaining a driver’s license or ID also has an opportunity to donate dollars to promote organ and tissue donation. These contributions were put into a Trust called the Trust For Life. Find out more about donating here.
For events and conversations held by Donate Life Kentucky regarding organ donation and transplantation, visit its Facebook page.