Advocates push for more Black organ donors

Diverse and expanded donor pool increases the chances of having a closer match

Kurt Renfroe and André Cabiness met in 1986 on their first day as students at what was then Clark College and became fast friends.

Their bond deepened when Renfroe, then just 19 or 20, discovered he had late stage renal disease.

He needed dialysis or a kidney transplant to live.

Cabiness was tested and was designated a match in July 1987, and the transplant was performed. “I saw the level of pain he was in and if there was something I could do, I’d do it,” said Cabiness.

“It was such a special thing,” Renfroe said. “You can actually give someone their life back.”

Black organ donors such as Cabiness go against the trend of organ donations among Black people.

In 2021, 26.6 % of people waiting for transplants in the U.S. were Black, but Black people accounted for less than 13% of all organ donors — living and deceased, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, a public-private partnership that links professionals involved in the nation’s donation and transplant system. For comparison, the 2020 U S Census reports Black people make up 12% of the U.S. population.

Of the living donors, 7.4% were Black, compared to 71% white donors and 16% Latino donors.

In Georgia only 33% of the population is comprised of Black residents, but Black people account for 63% of those currently waiting for organ transplants, according to LifeLink of Georgia.

Advocates say numbers like those illustrate how important it is for more Black people to consider being organ donors.

While it’s not necessary to have racial matches between donors and recipients, having a diverse and expanded donor pool increases the chances of having a closer match , Dr. Stephen Pastan, medical director of the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Programs at the Emory Transplant Center.

“It was such a special thing. You can actually give someone their life back."

- Kurt Renfroe, who received an organ donation from his friend

Reasons given for the low percentage of Black donors include a long-standing ingrained distrust of the medical system that has in the past used Black people as test subjects without their consent.

Bobby Howard, a kidney recipient from 1994 and director of multicultural donation and education programs for LifeLink of Georgia, a local not-for-profit organization that supports organ and tissue donation, also said religious belief and lack of understanding about the transplantation process are other factors.

The key, said Howard, who had a Black donor, is education. And there are signs it’s working. In the 27 years he’s doing this work, Howard said he has seen an increase in Black donors. “We’re showing the positive side of donation.”

Kidneys are the most needed organs for Black people because they have a higher incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure, which can harm kidneys. Black Americans are 3.4 times more likely to develop kidney failure than white Americans, according to the American Kidney Fund, a nonprofit that works on behalf of people with kidney disease and those at risk.

Credit: Photo by Brant Sanderlin/Berry College.

Credit: Photo by Brant Sanderlin/Berry College.

A recent study in the the American Journal of Kidney Diseases found non-Hispanic African American or Black and Hispanic/Latino patients are diagnosed with kidney failure at younger ages than white patients.

And that affects the donor pool as well.

LifeLink commissioned Johnny Crawford, a former photographer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to create a photo exhibit showcasing Black living organ donors, recipients and families of deceased donors. The exhibit, “The Perfect Gift: The African American Organ Transplant Project,” was personal for Crawford, who received a kidney from an anonymous donor in 1993. The exhibit is on display through March 18 at several DeKalb County libraries.

Jerry Boswell, 56, a tractor operator for Georgia Power, was the recipient of a perfect gift.

He went on dialysis in May 2017 for four months, but was in desperate need of a transplant.

His two daughters and a church member were found to be matches. Daughter Shakarah Boswell, a graduate from Berry College and now Scholarship Coordinator of Student Affairs, insisted she be the donor.

“She said I’m going to fix you. I’m going to save you. ”


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