Donating an organ is a gift of lifeJames E. Causey | Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel
A month ago, Trevon Ball's main concern was acing a manufacturing quiz at University of Wisconsin-Platteville and saving enough money to buy his first car.
Now, he sums up his biggest worry in one word: death.
Most 21-year-olds are not worried about their mortality. Ball never thought about death, either, until about two weeks ago, when both of his kidneys failed and a doctor told him he needed a kidney transplant.
"That's about how fast things happened. I'm still trying to process it all," Ball told me.
The waiting list for a kidney transplant in southeastern Wisconsin is three years. A new kidney could not come soon enough for Ball. He undergoes dialysis treatments three times a week.
Ball's family members soon will be tested to see if they are a match, but high blood pressure and diabetes run in his family, making a match unlikely.
Transplants locally and nationally come down to supply and demand. Simply put, for patients with severe kidney disease, the best treatment option is a kidney transplant from a living donor. But African-Americans are the least likely of all races to receive organs from living donors.
That has got to change. The best gift that anyone can give is the gift of life.
I'm not going to tell you that giving a kidney is just as easy as putting an Xbox under the Christmas tree. It's not, but while blacks make up less than 13% of the U.S. population, they represent about 30% of the people waiting for kidney donations.
Jay Campbell, vice president of organ procurement and tissue bank for the Blood Center of Wisconsin, told me that high blood pressure, genetics and diabetes destroy kidney functions and blacks suffer from these diseases at a rate five to 10 times higher than other races.
Of the 823 of people in need of kidney transplants in Milwaukee, 262 are African-American.
Ball told me he has not asked himself, "Why me?" In fact, he considers himself lucky that he found out when he did.
The former John Marshall High School varsity football and track standout said that if he hadn't voluntarily checked his blood pressure, he may not be alive today.
Ball's blood pressure had always been within normal range. When he checked his blood pressure on a Friday, it was 180/98; Saturday 190/90; and Sunday 204/103. When he went to the emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital in Milwaukee, they told him his kidneys had shut down and if he would have waited longer, he could have died.
Ball was diagnosed with a form of glomerulonephritis, a disease that injures the part of the kidney that filters blood.
Ball doesn't look sick. In fact, he told me he still loves to roller skate and exercise. The only noticeable difference can't be seen but can be felt when Ball receives treatments through an arteriovenous fistula in his forearm. The surgically crafted opening allows for easier needle access during hemodialysis treatment.
Ball's treatments could be avoided if he had a donor match.
There are a number of reasons blacks don't donate at a higher rate. Fear, lack of information about the issue and distrust of the medical community are some reasons.
I've even heard some of my own family members tell me that they won't get into the Pearly Gates if they leave organs behind.
I'm a potential donor. I have the sticker on my driver's license, and I've talked to my loved ones about it, despite their worries.
Mikel Holt, editor of the Community Journal, understands the fears. When he lost his son to a car accident in 2003, he made the decision to donate his son's organs.
Today, a young man can see, thanks to his son's cornea.
Holt told me that some blacks even worry that if they donate, their body will not look proper during a funeral service, so they would have to have a closed casket. Some even believe that if they are a donor, doctors will not work as hard to save their lives if they ever require life-savings procedures.
These are just some of the myths that Campbell tries to dispel by reaching out to black churches.
About 109,000 people are on the organ transplant waiting list - people just like Ball. The best gift he could get this year is one that might save his life.