More than 3,200 people in North Carolina are in need of an organ, eye or tissue transplant, and about half of those patients are Black.
Two and a half years ago, Courtney Waring was one of those people — a 29-year-old in desperate need of a donor heart to replace her own, which was damaged by chemotherapy treatments related to childhood cancer.
Waring, a first-grade teacher in Rock Hill Schools, got the life-saving transplant she needed, and today she’s helping raise awareness about the importance of organ donations in multicultural communities, especially among African Americans.
“If I didn’t receive a heart so quickly, then they were going to have to place an artificial heart in, and I wasn’t really a good candidate for that,” she said. “Thankfully, I was blessed to receive a heart within a couple of days of being on the transplant list.”
According to Donate Life North Carolina, African Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of people in need of organ, eye and tissue transplants. So to commemorate National Minority Donor Awareness Month, the organization has been reaching out to organizations in Charlotte and throughout the state — including C.W. Williams Community Health Center — seeking to recruit more Black and minority donors.
“When we talk about communities of color, people of color often have chronic diseases that can lead to organ failure,” says Tanise Love, manager of multicultural affairs at Donate Life NC. “That includes diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease, heart failure.”
Love said some patients wait years for a donor organ, especially those in need of a kidney.
Love said misinformation and myths often deter individuals from joining a donor registry:
Myth: My family will have to pay for donation-related medical expenses.
Fact: The donor’s family is never responsible for expenses related to tissue and organ donations.
Myth: I am too sick to be an organ or tissue donor.
Fact: Very few medical conditions automatically disqualify you from donating organs.
Myth: If I’m a donor, the hospital won’t work as hard to save my life.
Fact: The fact is, your health is the TOP PRIORITY of hospital staff. Only after every effort has been exhausted in saving a patient’s life and brain death has been officially determined by the attending physician, does the totally separate organ recovery team take over. Donating is never about trading one life for another. Remember, your medical team is there to save you.
Myth: What if they take my organs before I am really dead?
Fact: In reality, the opposite is true. Organ donors actually are given MORE tests to determine official death than those patients who haven’t agreed to organ donation.
Myth: I’m too old to donate.
Fact: Anyone, regardless of age or medical history, can register to be a donor.
Myth: Organ donation is against my religion.
Fact: All major religions support eye, organ and tissue donation as an ultimate act of charity.
How it works
Individuals who agree to donate tissue, eyes or organs may join the North Carolina registry in one of two ways — at the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicle or by registering directly through Donate Live North Carolina.
Once an individual has signed up to donate, it is always a good idea to inform family members.
“When you decide to be an eye, organ or tissue donor in North Carolina, it is law,” says Love. “If your family is unaware, it could come as a shock. So making sure your family knows that you’ve made the decision to register and that you want those wishes honored actually will help at the time of passing and will solidify the fact that you, as an individual, have decided to make that gift of life for somebody else. The decision and donor’s gift can often add comfort to the grief process.”
Not everyone who joins the registry is selected as a donor. Before eyes, tissue or organs are given to a patient in need, doctors must first determine a donor’s suitability. That decision can be based on a number of factors, including the donor’s size, blood type and overall health, Love said.
Five million North Carolina residents have joined the registry.
A failing heart
Patients need organ, eye and tissue transplants for a variety of reasons, Love said, including because of genetics, disease and even accidental food poisonings.
Organ failure can hit at any given moment, no matter who you are. You can be born needing a transplant to survive, you can have an undetected genetic issue that requires a transplant or even get accidental food poisoning that requires a kidney transplant to live.
In the case of Waring, her need for a donor heart was brought on by chemotherapy treatments she received while battling a childhood cancer. Her heart first failed at age 19, then again 10 years later.
Although Waring is unaware of her donor’s identity, she said she is grateful to have what she described as a “wonderful” life.
Because she had undergone heart failure twice and had abnormal heart function, she said she was unable to fully exert herself. She now works out more…and worries less.
“My life got better after transplant,” she said. “It really, truly has. It gave me a better outlook on life and a better hope for my life.”
She added: “I hope everyone makes that decision of becoming an organ, eye or tissue donor, because it gives recipients like me a second chance at life.”
To learn more about Donate Life North Carolina’s current outreach initiative and get your questions answered, visit The Decision Project at thedecisionproject.org.