Minorities less likely to donate organs
Religious concerns, lack of awareness among reasons
The 33-year-old member of the Ho-Chunk Nation said organ donation conflicts with her spiritual beliefs. She feels that people should go to the spirit world the same way they came in, inside and out. But when her diabetic mom needed a kidney, Dobbs gave hers in 2002. Now, she doesn't regret her decision, but worries what will happen when her mom passes away.
"Am I going to hold her back because she shares my kidney? I don't know," Dobbs said.
Religious and spiritual concerns are two of a series of reasons why minorities are less likely than whites to sign up to be organ donors, though they have a greater need for kidney transplants, according to the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
Statewide, 57 percent of whites sign up to be donors when they register for a driver's license, compared with 37 percent of Native Americans and 28 percent of blacks, said the Wisconsin Organ and Tissue Donor Program.
According to state health data, blacks make up only 6 percent of the population but they make up 26 percent of the people on kidney waiting list.
People of the same ethnicity are more likely to have matching blood types, so fewer donors make it harder for minorities to find a match, said Jill Ellefson of the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Organ Procurement Organization.
Minorities aren't necessarily less likely to donate, but some need more education about the process and the need, Ellefson said. The state has worked with fraternities, health fairs and religious organizations to help that effort, she said. More awareness and education about organ donation would increase donors among all groups, regardless of ethnicity, Ellefson added. "I think you have to educate people, but you also have to recognize it is an individual decision, and we honor those decisions," she said.
Dobbs, of Black River Falls, had to lose 50 pounds to be healthy enough for the transplant, and it took her two years to do it. Despite the success, Dobbs is still not a registered organ donor. "I didn't sign the back of my driver's license. I'm not going to donate anything after I go, but I think a living donor is different," she said.
Despite those feelings, Dobbs said she is upset that more families aren't stepping forward to donate organs needed by friends and family. Native American organ donors would increase if they gave organs they didn't think they'd need in the spirit world, and if they were assured the organs would go to another Native American, Dobbs said.
"It's sad watching people die. It's devastating, because it doesn't have to be that way," she said.
Religion plays a factor in organ donations among Hispanics, said Dr. Raul Mendoza, critical care specialist at Aurora BayCare Medical Center. Some believe if the heart is still beating, the person is not dead. The state has been working with Roman Catholics on this issue to work through any of their concerns, he said.
Only 24 percent of Asians sign up to be donors when they register for a driver's license, the lowest number in the state.
That low percentage is the result of historical Hmong beliefs, said Vaughn Vang of Green Bay.
"If you give blood to someone else, if that person dies, you die, too," said Vang, of the Lao Hmong Human Rights Council in Green Bay.
There is also the idea that in order to be reincarnated, people need to have all the organs they entered the world with, he said.
The topic of organ donation is not openly discussed, Vang added.
Some hesitation among minorities isn't religious at all, and comes from a distrust of the medical field. Between 1932 and 1972, hundreds of black men who thought they were treated for syphilis were not so researchers could study the effect of the disease. Known as the Tuskegee, Ala., syphilis experiment, officials said that infamous ethical violation still affects the way minorities deal with medical providers. A common belief is that a registered donor won't receive the best medical care and doctors will let them die to recover their organs, Ellefson said.
Mendoza said the organ procurement program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is contacted every time there is a serious accident or a patient is in very critical condition.
"Once we do that, we do our best to save the patient's life," he said.
Kidney donors are needed and many people also need heart and lung transplants, he said. The University of Wisconsin Hospitals' goal is for more people to think about end-of-life decisions and tell families their wishes, Ellefson said.
Tony Gaines of Allouez is black and has had two kidney transplants. The second came last year from his wife, who is white.
Gaines, 66, said he doesn't think the need for donors has been impressed upon many minority communities but admitted the talk starts at home.
"I always thought it was important, from the first time I heard you could be a donor and you could get a sticker for your driver's license. Both my wife and I did that," he said.
His wife, Karen Thomas, said the surgery wasn't difficult and people should know a donor match is not dependent on ethnicity. The relatively low number of organ donations among minorities is due to culture, background and opportunity, she said.
"Racial status has nothing to do with the willingness to donate. I think it has to do with an educational factor and just knowing about it."