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Chicago Defender – Life goes on when we become organ donors

By Andrea L. ZoppIt took Andrew Avant nearly 50 years to learn that he did not “grow out of” the heart murmur he’s had since birth. The first indication his heart had a leaky valve was in 2010 after he collapsed at work. Doctors had hoped medication would help, but earlier this year it became clear that Avant would need a heart transplant.

“I was told it would take at least nine months to a year before I would receive a heart, but I had a miracle,” said Avant . Three months later, in May, the Calumet City resident got the call and he got a heart.

Avant wasn’t exaggerating when he called it a miracle, especially with so few African Americans donating organs. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, last year in Illinois, African Americans comprised 30 percent of the those waiting for a transplant, but only 14 percent received one, compared to 27 percent of whites. And while there are 2,159 African Americans on the Illinois waiting list for organ or tissue donations, only 81 African Americans in the state registered as donors last year.

That number is shockingly low. Researchers have tried to identify why African Americans are reluctant to donate organs. Reasons include religious beliefs, fear of premature death and distrust of the medical profession.

But what it mostly boils down to is lack of awareness, an issue Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has addressed head-on with the “Life Goes On” campaign. While the campaign targets the state’s entire population, White recognizes the pressing need to educate and change the attitudes of African Americans and other minorities about organ and tissue donations.

“We travel to a lot of churches, hospitals, colleges and universities. Anywhere there’s an audience, we’ve been there expressing the importance of individuals signing up to become a part of this wonderful program,” said White.

In Illinois, there are 5.3 million people in the U.S. signed up to be organ donors, he added. There are 5,000 on the waiting list and 300 who die each year waiting.

“We especially put an emphasis on the African American community because they are 56 percent of the [national waiting] list, yet we participate at a level of 34 percent.”

White said the state has made some inroads, which he contributes partly to hiring the first African American in Illinois history, Connie Boatman, to head the state’s organ and tissue donor program.

The Chicago Urban League joins the Secretary of State’s Office in promoting the “Life Goes On” program and encouraging every eligible resident to register, spread the word and help change the attitudes of loved ones and peers. The fact that the demand for donated organs in the African American community is so great makes this your problem, too. For White and countless others in the community, the issue hits home; his sister received a kidney transplant about 20 years ago.

The fact is minorities have a particularly high need for organ transplants because they have higher incidence of conditions that can lead to organ failure, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. In fact, nearly 35 percent of the more than 95,000 people on the national waiting list for a kidney transplant are African American. Diseases of the heart, lung, pancreas and liver are also more common among African Americans. And while donors and recipients need not share the same race or ethnic background, when there is a match it can improve the chances for recovery and quality of life, according to White.

It’s an uncomfortable topic but it’s a journey we all must take. This is your chance to go out a hero.

Avant says he will never forget the day he got the call from the hospital about his new heart.

“I knew I would either wake up in glory or wake up in the hospital room,” said. “So many people don’t have to die if everybody would just be a donor. It’s an amazing program.”

And to think, at this moment there are thousands of people praying they will get that call.

“When you are alive and well, give blood,” White said. “When you are no longer here, give organs. If you’ve done those two things, you’ve made a positive impact on society.”

For more information on how to become an organ and tissue donor or to host a registration drive, go to lifegoeson.com or contact Connie Boatman at 800-210-2016.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.