Latoya Hankey spent winter break her senior year of college in a memorable way. The 22-year-old Boston native didn't escape to Mexico for a dose of warm weather. Nor did she "celebrate New Year's Eve on Dec. 31, 2008, at a wild party. Instead the Tufts University student spent the night recovering from surgery after being wheeled into a BIDMC operating room to donate a kidney to her ailing father.
"Only my closest friends and family knew; I kept getting texts from my friends on New Year's Eve asking me where I was," the now 23-year-old African American says about her choice to become a living donor two years ago. "At that time in my life the most important thing was doing whatever I could to save my dad's life. The surgery went really well. We are both so healthy now."
BIDMC has 202 patients on the national wait list for a kidney as of Dec. 31, 2009, according to Jim Rodrigue, PhD, Director of the Center for Transplant Outcomes and Quality Improvement in The Transplant Institute. Most of these patients are African American because this population has substantially higher rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and obesity - all factors that contribute to kidney failure, Rodrigue says.
In order to increase awareness and educate staff about becoming organ donors, especially for minority populations, the New England Donor Bank will be on campus on Tuesday, Aug. 17, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Shapiro Lobby in celebration of National Minority Organ Awareness Day.
"In New England, we don't have the number of donors needed to meet the demand for people who need a transplant," Rodrigue says. "Minorities, in particular, need all types of transplants, but the racial disparity is especially prominent for kidney transplantation. African Americans are very over-represented, relative to population statistics, on the kidney transplant waiting list."
Taking the first step to become a donor is getting easier as education and awareness campaigns launch around the country. Aug. 1, 2010, marked the 14th anniversary of National Minority Donor Awareness Day. Recognized by then President Bill Clinton, this national day of observance highlights the critical need for organ and tissue donation in the African American community. But Rodrigue says donors do not need to be the same ethnicity as the recipient, which means the need to become a donor is everyone's business regardless of race.
"When someone is suffering from renal failure and on dialysis, race is not important at this level," Rodrigue says. "At that level, a transplant is their best means of long-term survival and a better quality of life. So, finding a healthy donor whose tissue and blood type is a match is more important than finding someone that is a match and also of the same ethnicity."
On a local level, Gov. Deval Patrick approved legislation in July allowing residents renewing their driver's license online to be able to click a button designating them as an organ donor should they die. Previously, organ donor status could only be completed by physically renewing a driver's license at a Registry of Motor Vehicles branch. Rodrigue says that only 35 percent of all Massachusetts drivers are registered as organ donors, which falls well short of the 75 percent target set by Donate Life America.
The average wait for an organ is four years. BIDMC patient George Dixon has been waiting for a kidney since June 30. Diagnosed with chronic kidney disease in November 2009, Dixon then passed all the tests needed to land him on the best match list.
"This means that when someone dies anywhere in the country that is match for me, I am at the top of the list to receive the kidney," Dixon says. "The most important thing I've learned throughout this process is to not let myself get discouraged. We all face obstacles. But I think about this all the time and I always have my phone with me in case I get the call that a match has been found."
Becoming a living donor, like Hankey, may sound daunting, but Rodrigue and Dixon stresses that if a donor is deemed a match for a recipient, an extensive physical, medical and psychological process ensues to ensure the health of both the donor and the recipient. The screening can include a complete family history, a urine analysis, blood tests, a CT scan, a chest X-ray, a colonoscopy, a psychological evaluation and a surgical evaluation.
"You as a donor will not be put in a position that will be detrimental to your own health," Dixon said. "I come from a small family and my two family members who offered to donate were not able to because one of them was not my blood type and the other suffers from diabetes."
In fact, Dixon's wife has signed on to become a living donor even though she already knows she is not a match for her husband. Jane Dixon took the initiative to register with the New England Program for Kidney Exchange (NEPKE) and she has successfully passed through the donor evaluation process at The Transplant Institute. NEPKE, a program of New England Organ Bank, makes it possible for patients with kidney failure who have a willing, but incompatible live donor to exchange with another incompatible pair, so that both recipients are transplanted. An exchange can be an extremely rewarding experience for the donor as more families are helped by their donation. For the recipient, the benefits of living donor transplantation are compelling with longer kidney survival rates over deceased donor kidney and decreased immunosuppression drug therapy post-transplant.
Still, Dixon faces an obstacle. "My blood type is O-," Dixon says. "And although a person with Type O blood can donate to people of any blood type, they can only accept Type O. So it is highly unlikely that I will find a Living Paired Exchange or even a high quality deceased kidney. Type O is in high demand and short supply regardless of source. Consequently, I continue to wait for donor."
When Hankey learned that she was a match for her father, she was impressed that not only was the screening informative, but she had a completely separate team of social workers, psychologists, nurses and physicians than her father to ensure they each had individual support systems.
"I had a completely different group of caregivers and even on the morning of the surgery, they asked me if I was still ready to donate. It made me feel like this was my decision," Hankey said. "After the surgery, my dad bounced back quicker than the doctors thought he would. And I feel healthier now with one kidney than I did before the operation. I had all those tests run before the surgery that showed me how healthy I was. And now that I have only one kidney, I really take good care of myself because I know how important it is to be healthy."
For more information about becoming an organ donor, visit BIDMC's Transplant Institute website at