Originally created 05/17/99

Officials seek black donors



ATLANTA -- When Andrew "A.J." Jerrick teaches his weekly ballroom dance class nowadays, his moves are far more energetic and precise and display a bit more pizazz. His merengue has a little more oomph and his salsa a tad more spice.

Five years ago, Mr. Jerrick's career as a dancer, actor and musician nearly came to a halt when he was in the final stages of renal failure -- his kidneys had all but shut down because of high blood pressure.

"I had an extreme lack of energy. I was listless and depressed. I found it difficult to do things I would normally do in a breeze. I couldn't dance or walk upstairs," Mr. Jerrick recalls. "I didn't have that desire for life."

Then, after a two-year wait, a kidney transplant gave him a second chance. No longer would he be hooked up to a portable self-dialysis machine for 15 minutes, four times a day.

"It's given me a new outlook on life. I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm putting on the gas," said Mr. Jerrick, 60. "You know the saying, `I've got a long way to go and a short time to get there."'

He was one of the lucky ones.

More than 25 percent of some 63,000 people awaiting transplants are black, yet they account for fewer than 12 percent of all organ donors. And the gap appears to be widening as the waiting list continues to outpace donors.

Last year, for example, the number of white organ donors jumped 6.6 percent, while black donors edged up a mere 1 percent.

One of every three people with kidney failure is black -- a population at higher risk of high blood pressure and diabetes -- making the need greater and the wait for a transplant nearly twice as long as for whites. In addition, kidney transplants require closer genetic matching.

The disparity is even more pronounced in Georgia -- one of the leading states in kidney failure -- where blacks make up about half of the 800 people awaiting transplants.

"The need is so great, and the tragedy is that in reality there's not a shortage of organs; we're just burying them. We're burying organs that could be used to save lives," said Stephen Thomas, director of Emory University's Institute for Minority Health Research at the Rollins School of Public Health.

The shortage has raised concern among health officials who have spent seven months holding public hearings across Georgia to try to determine why there's a shortage of black donors and what can be done to boost the numbers.

The Georgia Leadership Commission on Organ, Tissue, Blood and Marrow Donation Among African Americans found that many blacks aren't aware of the critical need of black donors or that they are affected disproportionately.

Among the other reasons: Many blacks don't sign donor cards because of concerns about how organs are allocated, whether their religion supports such donations and a general distrust of the health care establishment.

"One of the things we've discovered is that there's still a tremendous amount of stigma that exists about transplantation," Mr. Thomas said. "These are problems that we can solve."

Vincent Faison Sr.'s first kidney transplant failed. For more than a year, the 37-year-old father of three has been tied to a dialysis machine thrice weekly for 4 1/2 hours a day while he waits for a second transplant.

His son, Vincent Faison Jr., who will play football at the University of Georgia this fall, offered to give his dad one of his own kidneys. But the elder Faison wouldn't have it.

"He has a big career and future ahead of him, and I don't want to jeopardize his career or anything. He has a life to live," the elder Faison said. "I've lived most of my life, and I can go on as long as I have to on dialysis until I get another kidney, if I get another kidney."

Over the next six months, the commission plans to assemble the testimony it gathers at the hearings and develop a five-year plan for boosting the number of black donors in Georgia.

"The recommendations come not from the ivory tower but the grass-roots community, from African-Americans across the state," Mr. Thomas said. "Because it comes from them it's highly likely that it will be successful."

Mr. Jerrick hopes his story will help dispel some of the myths about organ donation and prompt more blacks to become living or cadaver donors.

"It's the greatest gift you can do for another human being," he said. "It's giving that person life."