Once a very rare occurrence, now each day about 74 people receive an organ transplant. However, 18 people die every day waiting for transplants that can't take place because of the shortage of donated organs.
Racial and ethnic minority communities are highly affected by this shortage and are disproportionately represented on the waiting list, because the rate of organ donation, while in proportion to their share of the population, does not keep pace with the number of needed transplants. African Americans, for example, are about 13 percent of the population, about 14 percent of donors, and about 35 percent of the kidney waiting list.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there are more than 95,093 people on the national transplant waiting list as of February 15, 2007.
Minorities represent 50% of the people that are still waiting for an organ:
- African Americans 28,119
- Hispanics/Latinos 16,110
- Asians/Pacific Islanders 5,777
- American Indians/Alaska Natives 901
- Multiracial 595
Every day, in fact, several times per hour, a new name is added to the national waiting list.
The annual observance of the National Donor Day reaches out to all populations and focuses on the various fears and obstacles associated with donation. The campaign's goal is to promote healthy living and disease prevention, as well as increase the number of people who sign donor cards, have discussions with their families about their wishes, and become donors.
National Donor Day is also aimed at increasing awareness of the behaviors that may lead to the need for transplantation, such as smoking, alcohol and substance abuse, and poor nutrition.
Pennsylvania Stories of Life-giving
There are nearly 6,500 people awaiting an organ transplant in Pennsylvania. More than twenty-five percent, or nearly 1,800, are African-American, which is disproportionately high since they represent 10 percent of Pennsylvania's overall population.
With African-Americans disproportionately affected by illnesses that can lead to the need for dialysis or a kidney transplant, the lack of available organs means longer waiting periods, years on dialysis and sometimes death. Hilda Crawford of Pittsburgh, who has been waiting for a liver transplant for more than a year notes, "A lot of African-Americans don't donate organs, and we need to because we need organs, too. It's the right thing to do."
To help bring these important issues to the attention of minority communities throughout the western part of the state, the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE), the organ procurement organization (OPO) serving the region, is launching a new Multicultural Affairs Committee to plan special initiatives.
"Among all communities, there are many misconceptions and myths about becoming a designated organ donor. However, the situation is particularly acute within the African-American community where there tends to be a mistrust of the medical system. We are working to change those attitudes," notes William Medley, CORE's eye bank coordinator and member of the new Committee.
Increasing minority organ and tissue donations is critical to saving minority lives. Organs are matched by factors, including blood and tissue typing, which can vary by race. Patients are more likely to find matches among donors of their same race or ethnicity. Minority patients may have to wait longer for matched kidneys and therefore may be sicker at the time of transplant or die waiting. With more donated organs from minorities, finding a match will be quicker and the waiting time will be reduced.
Cynthia London, a member of the Gift of Life Board of Directors, the OPO serving the eastern half of Pennsylvania, agrees. "It is critical that we talk about organ and tissue donation in our community," she said. When her 22-year old son, Sipho Thembla (meaning "gift of hope" in IsiXhosa, also known as Xhosa, a South African language) was shot in 1997, London knew that Sipho would want to help others. She made the decision to donate, and his organs saved the lives of six people who were desperately waiting.
This active volunteer frequently shares her son's story and believes that his selfless gift has helped her family to heal. "When you die, if you leave money, people can spend it; if you leave property, they can give it away. Sipho left a legacy by donating his organs so others can live. That can never be taken away and knowing this helps bring comfort to our family," she added.
"Special events …help to raise awareness, which is so critical because African-Americans are at high risk for health conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, all of which can lead to the need for an organ transplant," said Tina Evans-Caines, Community Relations Coordinator, Gift of Life and chair, National Coalition on Donation African-American Committee. "These events also feature donor families and recipients who will share their personal experiences in hopes of addressing some of the myths and misconceptions that are widely believed in minority communities."
The statewide organ and tissue donor awareness campaign, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Power is designed to raise awareness and organ donor designations. The program is being carried out by the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Transportation, the Center for Organ Recovery and Education and the Gift of Life Donor Program.
Alison Mohn of Steelton was one of the volunteers in the campaign to emphasize the importance of becoming an organ donor. Her son Ryan died in February 2004 as a passenger in a single-car accident. Ryan was the quarterback of his high school football team, was highly respected by his peers and, before his death, had encouraged other students to become organ and tissue donors after a young man saved by a kidney transplant spoke to his church youth group.
Ryan was able to provide life saving transplants. A 12-year-old boy from New Jersey received Ryan's right kidney, and a 27-year-old women received his left lung in a double lung transplant. Ryan's pancreas was given to a 44-year-old man and his heart saved the life of a 36-year-old man.
"The one thing we need to extend to each other is the act of love," said London. "It makes me happy to know that we can enhance other people's lives by leaving our organs here on earth," she added.
Give the Gift of Life:
One person can save or enhance the lives of 50 people through organ and tissue donation.
- Learn the myths and facts about organ and tissue donation.
- Say yes to donation on your driver's license.
- Sign up with your State's donor registry (if your State has one).
- Discuss your decision with your family. They may be asked to give consent.
- Include donation in your advance directives, will, and living will.
- Spread the word about National Minority Donor Awareness Day.
- Encourage your family and friends to declare their wish to save lives.
- Plan an organ and tissue donation awareness event at your school, work, neighborhood or faith community.
The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network
Organ and Tissue Donation 101
25 Facts about Organ Donation and Transplantation
National Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Power
National Marrow Donor Program