Barry, Dickens Push for Kidney Donations

James Wright | 10/28/2009, 11:45 a.m.

Speaking from a personal vantage point, a longstanding District politician has taken the stand that African Americans should become active kidney donors and live healthier lifestyles to prevent the need for a kidney transplant.

D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) made his remarks Sun., Oct. 25 at the National Kidney Foundation's People Like Us Conference, a one-day symposium that attracted dialysis patients and potential kidney recipients along with their family, friends and caregivers at the Washington Marriott at Metro Center in Northwest.

Barry, 73, received a kidney from his friend, Kim Dickens, who attended the event, in February at Howard University Hospital in Northwest. The two were a perfect match and the procedure was performed by famed Howard University surgeon Dr. Clive Callendar.

Barry's need for a kidney was the result of diabetes and hypertension-two diseases which are common among African Americans.

"I have had medical challenges for over 20 to 25 years," Barry said. "I am fortunate that I have not had the side effects such as glaucoma or loss of vision or amputation."

Barry went on dialysis three times a week for three months to deal with his ailing kidney before he made the decision to have a transplant. He said that the dialysis affected him physically, with paling skin and a lack of energy to perform everyday tasks.

Statistics from the National Kidney Foundation, indicate that more than 26 million Americans live with diseases of the kidney and the urinary tract and do not know it. Diabetes, which affects nearly 24 million Americans, is the leading cause of kidney failure in the nation, accounting for one-third of new cases each year.

The foundation reports that there are currently 78,000 candidates waiting for a kidney transplant. In 2008, it reported that only 16,514 transplants were performed. Statistics compiled by the foundation state that about 17 people die each day waiting for an organ such as a heart, lung or kidney.

Dickens said that many people have commended her for being courageous for donating her kidney to Barry. While she is flattered by the praise, she said it was the right thing to do.

"There was no courage about it," said Dickens, a 49-year-old lifelong resident of the District. "I was trying to help a friend. I was overjoyed that we were a match."

Barry said that Blacks have a 30 to 40 percent rate higher than Whites and other ethnicities of getting diabetes and hypertension.

"Some of that is hereditary but I really think it is what we eat," he said. "We need to stop eating so much Popeye's and Kentucky Fried Chicken and eating better foods and exercise more."

Barry said that he eats a lot of fish and chicken [baked] and specifically requests that no salt be put on his food. As a result of his lifestyle change, he has become passionate about prevention.

Barry also said that compliance or following the recommendations of a physician is necessary.

In terms of organ donation, Barry is adamant about Blacks being kidney donors.

"We think we want to take it to heaven with us," the Ward 8 Democrat said. "We should remember 'give that which can save life.'"

Callendar, who founded Howard University Hospital's transplant and dialysis center in 1973 and is a leader in advocating Blacks donating their organs, agrees with Barry.

"The number one issue is the shortage of donors," he said. "We [as Blacks] have come a long way in contributing since 1973. Now we are contributing above our percentage of the population. But there is a disproportionate affect because while we are 13 percent of the population, 35 percent of those waiting for transplants are African Americans.€

While Barry was mayor, he worked to see that the Department of Motor Vehicles included organ donor status on drivers' licenses. Recently, he endorsed federal legislation that would extend Medicare coverage of immunosuppressive drugs for kidney transplants.

The Washington area leads the nation in kidney disease with more than 700,000 people affected, nearly 6,000 patients on dialysis and more than 1,600 waiting for a life-saving kidney transplant. Working with Dickens, Barry is planning to start a foundation that will educate people in the Washington region about the importance of donating.

"We should be ready to go around Christmas," he said. "We plan on approaching Howard University and WHUR about having a 24-hour telethon about kidney donation. It is my goal to get 200 or 300 people to donate a kidney," Barry said.