Sometimes love has the power to be lifesaving in ways one could never expect. Just ask Spring, Texas-based human resources manager Dwight Deserne. Five years after he accepted his wife Renee’s hand in marriage following their whirlwind romance, he accepted one of her kidneys. Diagnosed at birth with undersized kidneys and plagued with a debilitating illness since, Dwight, now 43, initially refused his bride’s love offering though it was a perfect genetic match. But as he grew sicker and realized his waiting list kidney might not come in time, he caved.
“I begged her not to do it,” he says. “Renee is five years younger than me and relatively healthy; I didn’t want to take any chances that she could be putting her own health at risk. Fortunately, she paid no attention to me,” Dwight says, laughing. “She went right on over to Methodist hospital in Houston—probably one of the best facilities in the world for kidney transplants—did the workup and got a date. We had our surgeries right before Christmas. As a result, my breathing is better, my food tastes better and I haven’t had this much energy since I was 14 years old. My body is just getting what it needs. The best gift ever.”
You could say Washington, D.C.-based activist, community organizer and two-time nonprofit founder Odunola Ojewumi was gifted twice. To end her life-threatening battle with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, she received both a heart and a kidney at age 9. All Ojewumi knows about her donor is that she was a 22-year-old woman killed in a car accident. “When I was 16, I sent her parents a letter to say thank you. They never wrote me back,” says Ojewumi, now 26. “I understand. I can only imagine how it must feel to know your daughter’s heart beats in someone else’s chest; I have her kidney, too.”
Feeling as if she needed to live the life worthy of such gifts, Ojewumi devoted herself to ensuring as many needy people as possible received transplants.
“I started the Sacred Hearts Children’s Transplant Organization to help children struggling with life-threatening illnesses like mine,” says the University of Maryland graduate, who also founded Project ASCEND, which provides college scholarships to low-income students, funding for women’s education programs and support for global mentorship groups. “Through Sacred Heart, we provide teddy bears, books and toys to children awaiting transplants across the United States. We want them to know that even though they’re facing adult-level crises, they are still kids.”
What is true in the United States is that many in need of transplants—especially hearts and kidneys—are Black.
Organ and tissue donor network the Gift of Hope reports that African-Americans are at increased risk for high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease—all of which can lead to organ failure and a greater need for organ transplants. Kidney failure, in particular, occurs more frequently among African-Americans than any other race. Nearly 31,000 Blacks awaiting kidney transplants make up 34 percent of the people on the national kidney transplant waiting list. And with African-Americans comprising 29 percent of those waiting for transplants, but only 16 percent of donors, Blacks of all ages consistently fall short.
Although the Desernes understand why more of us don’t rush to become donors, they urge African-Americans to challenge their fears and misconceptions.
“Black folks have a general mistrust of medicine because of past abuses against us, from the plantation to Tuskegee,” explains Dwight, referencing the latter infamous syphilis experiment. “I get that, but we are still in need,” he says. “Then there is the fear of being cut open. Also, we don’t go to the doctor like we need to. I know a lot of folks with raging blood pressure who’ll say: ‘I feel good, I look good, my belly is not too big so it can’t be that bad.’ They’ll make up reasons not to get a checkup once a year, and when they do finally [get one], their health is in shambles.”
“I got some interesting reactions when I told people I was donating,” shares Renee, who says the hardest part about donating was the prep work—CAT scans, glucose tolerance and other blood tests—before the surgery. “Some were excited, happy and empathetic. Others thought I was crazy or were scared for me,” she says. “But the truth is, just weeks after my laparoscopic nephrectomy, which leaves just a tiny scar, I felt pretty much like myself again. I’m on pain meds, but it’s manageable. I’ll experience fatigue for up to a year after surgery as my body rebalances itself and my right kidney starts handling what the two were handling, but otherwise, I feel fine.”
“Potential donors, this is something you can do,” Renee insists. “I tell Dwight all the time, even if I hadn’t been a match for him, I would have eventually given my kidney to someone because the need among our people is so great. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
For information on donating an organ or making your organs available upon death, contact the American Transplant Foundation, [email protected]