Organ Donation in Spotlight

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009; PG03

For NaTasha Driggers, trying to stay alive was the focus of her daily routine for 18 months.

Three days a week, the 43-year-old wife and mother from Clinton was tethered to a machine for four-hour kidney dialysis sessions.

Driggers was one of several people who shared their stories last week at Howard University Hospital in a program to promote organ donation during National Donor Life Month. The hospital teamed with the Washington Regional Transplant Community and the National Minority Organ Tissue and Education Program to gather recipients and donors for the observance.

"I felt like I didn't have a life," Driggers said during the program. "I felt like it all belonged to dialysis. I was so restricted. I couldn't do anything." But on a summer night in 1998, she checked her voice mail and found a message that changed her life. It was from the transplant organization.

A 17-year-old girl named Erin Boyer was on life support at a hospital. The Silver Spring girl had suffered a brain aneurism, and there was no hope of recovery. Her family consented to donation of several of the girl's organs, and as a result, Driggers received a kidney and a pancreas at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

During the Howard program, Driggers gave a special donor lapel pin to Kim Dickens, a District woman who donated one of her kidneys to D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) earlier this year. The transplant surgery was performed in February at Howard University Hospital. Dickens, who attended the program, said that even though some of her friends tried to talk her out of the move, "I think this is one of the best gifts that you can give somebody."

Joan Barbour, a resident of Cheverly who received a donor kidney, said it is surprising how many African American kidney patients have resigned themselves to dialysis.

"When I was on dialysis, the unit was 98 percent Afro American, and when I would go around asking some of the patients if they were on a waiting list, they would say: 'No, I am not interested. I don't know about it,' " Barbour said. "It surprised me, because I wanted to live."

Clive O. Callender, director of Howard's transplant center, said: "It is so important. When you think about it, there are 100,000 people waiting for transplants, and of that 100,000, only 30,000 get transplants."

"And the end result," he said, "is 20 people die every day because of the shortage of donors."

As the founder of the National Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program, Callender said he is encouraged by the growing number of people who, like Dickens, become living organ donors.

Last week's program and an organ drive at Howard were among many activities celebrating April as National Donor Life Month. The observances culminated Sunday with the 18th annual "Donor Family Gathering" at the National Presbyterian Church. That event drew more than 600 people, including organ recipients, families of donors and living donors.

Unveiled at the gathering was the 13th Donor Family Remembrance quilt, made up of squares recognizing those who have donated organs and tissue over the years. This year, the family of Tim Russert, former NBC News Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press," was recognized on the quilt because Russert became a donor when he died of a heart attack last year. Russert's widow, Maureen Orth, attended the gathering and brought the patch she had made for the quilt.

Driggers's transplants allowed her to return to work and maintain an active lifestyle.

"Everybody should have a second chance at life," she said. "I was sick and drained all of the time, but now I have a healthy and productive life. . . . It feels good not being sick and being able to do normal things."

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