By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – Before his kidney transplant, Chris Barbera, 15, of Darnestown was always out of breath during sports, had low stamina and was too tired to pay attention in class.
Today, five months after he received one of his father’s kidneys, Barbera is on the honor roll at St. John’s/Prospect Hall High School and looking forward to playing on the school’s soccer and basketball teams in the fall. But first, he will represent Team Nation’s Capital at the 2000 U.S. Transplant Games in Florida in the three-on-three basketball tournament and the 5K run.
“Transplants work and (members of the team) are living proof,” said Barbera, whose kidneys were damaged by a rare genetic disease called Alport syndrome. He was speaking at an event in Washington, D.C., Thursday to highlight National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week.
Despite success stories such as Barbera’s, many people in Maryland and Washington continue to wait for organs, as donation rates lag behind the need.
In March, 2,362 Maryland residents were waiting for a lifesaving organ, said Joe O’Donnell, director of public relations for the Transplant Resource Center of Maryland, but in 1999 only 77 people in the state were organ donors after their deaths.
The actual number of transplants in the state is much higher, since each donor can give more than one organ, and organs may be brought in from other states if a match is available and the need is immediate, said O’Donnell. But the 550 transplants at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center in 1999 were still far short of the need. Around 10 people across the country die each day waiting for a needed organ, O’Donnell said.
The center coordinates organ transplants from deceased donors for Maryland, excluding Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles Counties. Donations from living friends or family members, as in the Barberas’ case, are handled by individual medical facilities.
In the Washington area, over 1,400 people are waiting for organs, but less than half of potential donors take steps to make sure their organs can be used, according to the National Kidney Foundation of the National Capital Area, which organized Thursday’s event.
More people need to fill out organ donor cards and tell their family members to approve the donation after their death, said Jack Moore Jr., the local kidney foundation’s board chairman.
The Transplant Games are a particularly visible way to show what people can do after a transplant and to ask others to consider becoming donors, said Bruce W. Brooks of Riva, co-captain of the 17-member Team Maryland.
Brooks, 58, got involved in organizing and promoting the games a couple of years after receiving a heart transplant in July 1991. He now volunteers with several transplant-related groups.
The donated heart was “a random act of love from a very benevolent person,” said Brooks, who will compete this year in bowling and the 5K run.
Former University of Maryland basketball player Duane Simpkins had a personal reason for signing his organ donor card at the Thursday event. His mentor and coach at DeMatha High School, Morgan Wooten, received a liver transplant in July 1996 that not only saved Wooten’s life, but let thousands of others benefit from his guidance, Simpkins said.
Simpkins said he was sobered by the statistics that African Americans are more likely to suffer from kidney failure than others. “I now know what I can do,” he said.
Moore said an organ donor card is important, because it lets doctors and family members know your wishes. But the card alone is not enough, he said. Individuals must tell their family members about their wishes, because the family’s consent is required.
Moore also said people should not be deterred by fears that a funeral will be delayed, the hospital bill will be increased or that doctors will not take as good care of a potential organ donor. “That is just not true,” he said.
“Everyone should be an organ donor,” said Joseph Barbera, Chris’s father.
Making it clear that you want to be an organ donor takes “two seconds to do, 30 seconds to say (to your family) and makes a lifetime of difference,” he said.