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Barry Donor Embraced Chance to Aid Ailing Friend

By Nikita Stewart and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 22, 2009

D.C. Council member Marion Barry was lighthearted about the gravity of his kidney failure when he asked friends whether they would be willing to donate an organ last year.

Faced with yet another health battle, Barry (D-Ward 8) jokingly asked friends gathered at the Channel Inn, a restaurant on the Southwest waterfront, "Would you give me a kidney?"

Kim Dickens, who has known Barry for more than a decade, responded, "I'll give you a kidney."

"Are you serious?" Barry, 72, asked, according to others who were present.

"The next day, she came to Howard University and was tested, and the next day she was told that it was a match, and she began to weep tears of joy. She is a very good friend," said Natalie Williams, a spokeswoman for Barry.

Yesterday, the former mayor and Dickens, 47, were recovering at Howard University Hospital, where doctors performed the seven-hour kidney transplant surgery Friday. Dickens was among four who were tested to see whether they could be donors, Williams said.

Dickens has worked as a pharmaceutical representative and hosted a fundraiser for Barry's reelection last year. She declined requests for an interview yesterday but said she will appear at a news conference next week, Williams said.

Williams and the doctors at Howard appeared at the news conference yesterday. Barry, who had wanted to attend, remained in intensive care yesterday morning, although doctors said his recovery from the surgery is on track. They removed Barry's breathing tube, hospital officials said, and he was expected to be moved to a regular room, possibly as soon as yesterday.

"Mr. Barry is fortunate enough to receive a second chance on life," said Clive O. Callender, who was in charge of Barry's surgical team and is the founder and director of Howard's transplant center.

Doctors described Barry as extremely ill during the months leading up to the surgery.

"In April of 2008, there was a decline in his kidney function, and we had a heart-to-heart talk," said Martin Dillard, Barry's nephrologist. "It reached a point where his kidneys no longer functioned, and he needed dialysis three times a week."

Barry publicly revealed his health problems more than a week ago, as federal prosecutors were asking a federal judge to jail him for failing to file his 2007 tax returns on time. Barry was sentenced to three years' probation for previous tax troubles. The sentence expires next month. Barry has said his pending kidney transplant was a distraction to a timely filing. He has since filed the returns.

The controversial four-term mayor has garnered praise as a champion of the disadvantaged and scorn for drug use and continued tax problems. During his almost 40 years in politics, Barry has endured a gunshot wound and prostate cancer and has lived with diabetes and hypertension -- health issues he says probably contributed to his kidney failure.

Surgery for Barry and Dickens was scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Dickens was operated on first, but the initial incision for Barry didn't take place until 5 p.m.

"The bottom line: He is up and about," Callender said. "Rejection can come early, or it can come late, but we have given him those medications preventing rejection, so we are very hopeful."

Ron Harris, a spokesman for the university, said Barry spoke to several people by phone yesterday morning, including his minister and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

More than 1,600 people in the region are awaiting kidney transplants, said Cindy Speas, director of community affairs for the Washington Regional Transplant Community. About 15 percent of all kidneys transplanted last year went to someone 65 or older, she said. In most cases, the donors died and donated their organs, but donations by friends are rising.

For the doctors at Howard, treating Barry has been an opportunity to promote organ transplants.

"We, as African Americans, are 13 percent of the population but 35 percent of the people on waiting lists for transplants. We are disproportionately affected," Callender said. "We need organs more than anybody else. And because of that, we need to become donors."

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