Number of Minorities on Organ Waiting Lists Rising

National Minority Donor Awareness Day, on Aug. 1, was first recognized 10 years ago. Since then, the number of minorities on the organ waiting list has increased dramatically. Ed Gordon talks with organ recipient Bobby Howard, a former NFL running back, about how his need for a kidney changed the way he looked at life and himself.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Basketball star Alonzo Mourning made headlines this summer when he helped the Miami Heat win the NBA Championship. It was the first championship ring for the seven-time All-Star. But what made the win so remarkable was that it came less than three years after he had a kidney transplant.

Mourning was fortunate that he as able to find an organ donor. But many Black and minority patients aren't so lucky. Today is National Minority Donor Awareness Day. And since it was first recognized 10 years ago, the number of minorities on the organ waiting list has seen an alarming increase.

More on that in a moment. But first, a personal story. Organ recipient Bobby Howard is a former NFL running back. He told me how his need for a kidney changed the way he looked at life and himself.

Mr. BOBBY HOWARD (Organ Recipient, Former NFL Running Back): Society teaches us to be very selfish individuals. And being a professional football player, Bobby Howard was a very selfish individual. When I started dialysis and knowing that I needed a kidney transplant, my selfishness was gone away because now I had to depend on people to help me survive.

GORDON: Bobby, what about those signs, often - particularly men - don't adhere to the signs that may be telling you something early. Talk to me about your experience. What you noticed, what you did and didn't do, and what people should look for?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, one of the things with me, as being an athlete - you're taught to deal with the pain, to tolerate a lot of pain. And not knowing at the time, but there were little things going on in my body. I had trouble sleeping. I had night sweats. When I would urinate, I had a lot of foam. And these things that I'd ignored because I just thought it was routine.

I would have headaches and take Tylenol and they would go away at that time. So I ignored a lot of those warning signs. Those were signals that something was going wrong, but as a black male, it's that we have this image and this machoism about ourselves that we are the providers, we are supposed to take care of our families, and to provide and the protectors.

So, when little things are going wrong with us, we don't take the time to see what it really entails, and that's what I did. I don't want people to make the same mistake that I did. And I'm an educated guy, have a college degree, and sometimes we believe that people with more education know a little more.

I didn't know those things about what was going on with my body. So now I'm more cautious and I try to let everybody know - make sure you know what's going on inside your body. If something's going wrong, go get it checked out.

GORDON: Talk to me about how you life has changed since the operation.

Mr. HOWARD: Oh, my life has changed so dramatically. I'm a humbled person now. It's not all about Bobby Howard, it's about people, it's about life. As far as my physical attributes: when I got sick, I was 235 pounds - and that was my playing football weight - now I'm only 242. So I am so proud that I'm only seven pounds heavier than what I was when I played football.

But my life is wonderful. I've been doing this job here in Georgia for the past 12 years. I've only had three sick days in 12 years. I can do just about everything - anything that I want to do except play contact sports and that's football.

GORDON: How difficult was it for you, Bobby, to come to that realization that something that you loved, that was part of your life, was no longer going to be in existence for you?

Mr. HOWARD: It wasn't that difficult because, for me, football wasn't the main thing in my life. I had made a promise to my mother, years ago, that I would be the first one in my family to get a college degree, and I did that. So by getting my college degree, that was more important than football, because I knew football would not last forever. I needed something - that if anything were to happen to me - I always could rely back that I had a college degree and I was able to learn to do anything particular job that I put my mind to doing.

So getting out of football was not a big loss for me. The thing I think I do, because I love the sport so much, is that coach high school football, and I've been coaching high school football for the past 14 years now. So I think that keeps me involved with the game that I love, but it wasn't difficult to give it up.

GORDON: Bobby, before I let you go, I want to talk about your work with LifeLink of Georgia. It's a federally designated organ procurement organization in the state. And of course, they have these kinds of organizations all across the United States. Talk to us about the importance of these organizations for people who are awaiting a matching donation, but also for those who provide them. That's very important as well.

Mr. HOWARD: Yes it is. It's very important. My work here, at LifeLink of Georgia, is to educate the African-American community on how important organ and tissue donation is and how it affects our community.

Our main goal is that the people who are out there, who are willing to become organ donors but just don't have the correct information - the people who have not made up their minds, who are sitting on that fence not knowing which way they're going to go - so by providing that information and allowing them to have the chance to say, you know, that's something that I want to do, when my life is over, I want to leave something, I want to leave a legacy, I want someone to remember me for doing something very positive by giving the gift of life to someone else - so that's what we do, is we try to encourage by empowering people by giving them the correct information. So now they can make a true decision based on the facts of what they would want to have done and how important organ and tissue donation is, not only to the African-American community, but to this whole country.

GORDON: Well, Bobby Howard, we appreciate you being out there all the time, spreading the word about this, and we appreciate your time today.

Mr. HOWARD: Well, thank you, it's been wonderful.

GORDON: That was former NFL star Bobby Howard. He's an education specialist for LifeLink of Georgia, and organ donation organization.

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