When Faith McKinney received an email asking for a kidney from a healthy donor, McKinney knew she could make a difference in the world. The email came from a cousin whose husband needed the kidney and was having trouble finding a donor.
McKinney knew the importance of organ donation because she was once a recipient. McKinney had a hereditary disease, keratoconus, which causes bulging in the cornea and can degrade vision. In 1998, McKinney received a cornea transplant from a deceased donor.
“So many people said they could, but for one reason or another it would fall through,” McKinney said. “I can’t imagine the pain that the family members must have gone through losing a loved one, but I am grateful and I understand how much it means for someone’s life,” McKinney said.
Because of McKinney’s kidney donation her cousin’s husband lived seven more years.
Nationally, nearly 115,000 people are awaiting an organ transplant — almost a third of those on the transplant waiting list are African-American. Twenty-five percent of African-Americans who do not receive a transplant die every year. In Indiana, there are 317 African-Americans out of 1,269 Hoosiers on the transplant list. Unfortunately, there’s a huge gap in donors. In 2017, there were just 32 deceased African-American organ donors and seven living donors statewide. This means only about 3 percent of organ donors are African-American.
Having African-Americans as donors is important because experts believe transplants are more likely to be successful if both the donor and recipient are of the same ethnic background. People of the same ethnic group are more likely to have a gene match and have the same blood type. A majority of African-Americans have blood type B, which is a rare blood type and often leads to African-Americans waiting longer for a transplant.
Even when donors are of similar backgrounds, there’s no guarantee of a match, amplifying the need for a bigger donor pool. In 2012, Curtis Warfield, a senior quality analyst for the State of Indiana, was diagnosed with stage 3 kidney disease and put on dialysis. Initially, Warfield’s daughter planned to be the donor, but after two months of testing the doctors saw a potential for rejection. Warfield’s daughter was not a match. However, her daughter’s friend and sorority sister Rosalyn Martin was a match. The transplant surgery occurred in Jan. 2016 and was successful. Warfield was back to work in weeks and Martin graduated college that May.
“I decided to become a living donor because I feel that if there is someone out there that can benefit from this vessel that God has allowed me to posses during my lifetime to help improve the quality of life of another, I will do all I can to fulfill that purpose,” Martin said.
Warfield can’t express enough gratitude for Martin’s donation.
“That’s my living hero,” he said.
The lack of donors in the African-American community could be attributed to misinformation and myths. Ebony Chappel, multicultural relations coordinator for the Indiana Donor Network, said they often find ethnic communities are uninformed or misinformed about what organ donation and transplantation is. Chappel said a lot of times when next of kin are asked about the possibility of tissue or organ donation for their deceased loved one, the answer is often no. A study from the University of Missouri shows that media can have a harmful effect on organ donation because it feeds off a mistrust of medical professionals.
“There are a lot of myths surrounding organ donation,” Chappel said. “One myth that is often spread around is that if you have a heart on your license is that medical professionals will not do everything in their power to save you but that is simply not true. Medical professionals take an oath to do whatever they can to save a life, and they have no idea who is and isn’t on the donor registry.”
The Indiana Donor Network is on a mission to get more African-Americans on the donor registry. One initiative to expand the donor registry is to increase visibility, outreach and education by setting up booths at various community events. Chappel says they have reached almost 5,000 Hoosiers of color.
“What we do is go into these communities and bust these myths about the process and let them know that it’s something that can be accessible to them as well because anyone can be a lifesaver,” Chappel said. “It’s not a scary thing. It’s actually very beautiful.”
Contact staff writer Mariah Lee at 317-762-7853. Follow her on Twitter @mariahlee1994.