Kidney disease awareness within the African American community
By Lottie L. Joiner,
Correction: The article previously incorrected referred to Pretha Mitchell’s age as 52 when she donated her kidney. She was 51.
African Americans constitute 32 percent of patients in the United States receiving dialysis for kidney failure, although they are only 11 percent of the population. They are 3 1/2 times more likely to have kidney disease than whites.
“The diseases that lead to kidney disease, such as high blood pressure or hypertension and diabetes, are much more concentrated in African American populations,” said J. Keith Melancon, former director of the kidney and pancreas transplantation at the Georgetown Transplant Institute. “There’s also a genetic factor.”
The National Kidney Foundation has designated March kidney awareness month.
Far more African Americans need a kidney transplant than there are available kidneys. One reason is that most donors are white and often are not a match for African American patients. The District, Melancon said, has the highest rate of end-stage renal disease in the country. The waiting list for a black person in need of a kidney, he said, is five to six years.
Because of previously undiagnosed health issues, including heart disease or lung cancer, only one in four people who want to donate are cleared to do so. Here are a few stories of people touched by the disease.
‘There was definitely no turning back’
Her brother’s kidney’s were failing, and Pretha Mitchell knew what she had to do. They had the same blood type, and she was in great health.
A Jazzercise instructor for more than 20 years, Mitchell was going to donate a kidney to save her brother’s life.
She was 51. Gerard, her brother, was 41.
As part of her preparation, Mitchell met with doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital last year to take a battery of tests. During four hours of interviews, the doctors tried to convey the seriousness of the surgery and possible repercussions.
“I got really, really scared,” Mitchell said. “Here I was being told, ‘Well you know there’s always a percent, a possibility’ that I would not survive the surgery.”
Just before the surgery in June, she wrote a will. “There was definitely no turning back,” she said.
The operation was a success. Mitchell said she feels better than she did before the transplant. She was back at work five weeks after surgery and returned to teaching Jazzercise in November.
Meanwhile, her brother is doing well, too. He returned to Trinidad in August and has made significant lifestyle changes, such as a better diet.
“If there’s anybody out there that is thinking about donating a kidney, I would encourage them,” Mitchell said. “It is a gift.”
‘What am I going to do?’
Ric Cureton shouldn’t have been walking two winters ago when he showed up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
He was dehydrated, his heart was racing and his blood pressure was so high that he was admitted immediately.
“I shouldn’t have been standing upright,” Cureton said he was told.
After a series of tests, he received a diagnosis of end-stage kidney failure and lupus. It was a surprise to Cureton, 36, who had served 12 years in the military and four years in the reserves. He worked out regularly and thought he was in perfect health.
“It was almost like a disaster,” he said. “It’s like everything, the weight of the world, just fell straight on my shoulders. Like, ‘What am I going to do? What is next?’ ”
With his kidneys functioning at only 25 percent, Cureton is still waiting for a kidney.
His wife is not a match. Neither his mother nor his siblings — five sisters and one brother — are healthy enough to donate. So he’s among the nearly 100,000 people in the United States waiting for a kidney.
As he waits, Cureton is changing his diet. Pizza, ice cream and McDonald’s have given way to whole grains and salads.
“I eat a lot of organic now,” he said. “Whole Foods has become my second store.”
Cureton also credits prayer and a strong faith for keeping him off dialysis.
“I can’t explain the exact Bible verse,” he said. “But it goes, ‘He may not come when you want Him, but He’s always on time.’ ”
‘You’re the CEO of your health’
Ron Minor had an epiphany while waiting to see the doctor months after receiving a kidney from his wife. He was alone in a room at a D.C. hospital, watching a helicopter land. He needed to get the word out.
A 37-year veteran at NBC, Minor started working on a documentary about kidney disease. He is chief executive of Fine Line Productions East, which produces commercials and training videos. That project is called “I Didn’t Know.” It is narrated by James Brown of CBS Sports and is expected to be completed this fall.
Minor is hoping to pass along what he has learned. The self-described meat-and-potatoes guy eats salads and exercises daily, and he has reduced the sodium in his diet. Even so, he requires 23 pills a day for various maladies.
During a routine checkup in 2008, Minor’s doctor noticed that his levels of creatinine — waste that builds up in blood when kidney function is reduced — were high. He needed a new kidney. “I thought, ‘Oh, God. This is it,’ ” said Minor, now 65.
Minor had the top three common causes of chronic kidney disease — diabetes, high blood pressure and family history. His mother died of renal failure in 1992.
“If I knew my mother had died of renal failure, I should have immediately [said], ‘Hey, I need to get my kidneys checked out,’ ” he said.
None of his three children were a donor match. When his wife offered to be tested, Minor rebuffed her because she was white. She was tested anyway and was a match. He received his kidney in 2009.
Minor’s 39-year-old son has received a diagnosis of kidney disease and has been on dialysis for six months. “You’re the CEO of your health,” Minor said. “Don’t let it fail.”
Joiner is a freelance writer.