April is National ‘Donate Life Month.’ Here’s what it means

About 5,000 people in the Philadelphia area are awaiting an organ transplant. Some wait for over five years.

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Organ donation paperwork.

This Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 photo shows organ donation paperwork at Mid-America Transplant Services in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Whitney Curtis)

April is National Donate Life Month, a time when organizations raise awareness about organ and tissue donation programs.

Nationally, more than 100,000 people are currently awaiting an organ transplant, including about 5,000 people in the Greater Philadelphia region, Eastern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley, South Jersey, and Delaware according to Rick Hasz, CEO of Gift of Life Organ Donor Program — non-profit, federally-designated organ donation and transplant network for the eastern half of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware.

Hasz said most waitlisted patients in the area are waiting on a new kidney, and that some people wait for more than five years.

“With kidney disease, you have dialysis that can kind of get you through until that transplant, but the mortality rate on dialysis is very high. And so some people never get that second chance,” Hasz said.

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On April 30, Celeste Brown, a Lawnside resident, will celebrate one year of receiving a new kidney.

Brown had been adamantly against organ donation when Gift of Life reached out in 2004 to inquire if she wanted to donate her son’s organs.

“I thought that was very disrespectful at the time. I felt like they didn’t care because I had just lost a loved one,” Brown said, recounting a phone call she had soon after her son was murdered.

Brown, who is Black, had a change of heart in 2021 when she fell sick and needed a kidney transplant of her own.

Black Americans disproportionately have a greater need for organ transplants due to a higher prevalence of hypertension and diabetes, yet Black patients tend to wait longer for matching organs because not enough Black people donate, Hasz said.

Brown said the hesitation could be for many reasons, like potentially conflicting religious beliefs and cynicism about the process.

“We’re the last to be donors,” Brown said.

Organ matches often depend on a person’s race. Blood type is one of the most important compatibility factors, and the majority of Black people have type O+, A+, or B+ blood type, according to the American Red Cross.

Hasz claimed that Black patients comprise 40% of the people waiting for a transplant in the Philadelphia area.

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He said part of the problem is that in some communities of color, there’s a general distrust of the medical system.

“When our transplant coordinators are walking into an ICU to counsel a family, they’re already not trusting the hospital in which they’re receiving care,” Hasz said.

One common myth that Gift of Life wants to dispel is the misconception that medical personnel prioritizes recovering someone’s organs over saving someone’s life in an emergency situation.

Gift of Life reiterated that medical staff assigned to recovering organs are not the same medical personnel performing surgery.

“We have to talk to families at the worst possible time,” Hasz said. “So the more we can preempt that and educate the community… we want to be part of that.”

The White House has published a guide on frequently asked questions about organ donation with information about who can be an organ donor and how the organ matching process works.

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