UNION COUNTY, NJ — Keith Gerald has a very big reason to celebrate National Minority Donor Awareness Week. Two years ago, Gerald received a heart and liver transplant.
“I want to honor donors, especially minority donors,” Gerald said. “I want to thank them on behalf of the recipient. I recognize it’s hard to be an organ donor, especially as a minority. There’s a distrust of doctors and people don’t realize how important this is until it affects their family. After people are educated, they want to donate. Education is a big part.”
Minority Donor Awareness week, held Aug. 1 to 7, had two purposes: to honor and thank multicultural organ donors and their families, and also to underscore the critical need for people from diverse communities to register as organ and tissue donors.
NJ Sharing Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the recovery and placement of donated organs and tissue, promoted several events through the week, especially in diverse areas such as Plainfield.
Donations are needed for minorities more than ever before in New Jersey, according to the organization. In its Aug. 2 press release, it said more than 4,000 patients are waiting for an organ transplant in New Jersey, including 1,705 minorities.
Although organ and tissue transplant possibilities aren’t determined by race or ethnicity, the chances of finding a match increase if backgrounds are similar.
Gerald, who went from volunteer to an employee of NJ Sharing Network, helps spread the message by sharing his own story. He was a junior in college and getting good grades when suddenly he developed flu-like symptoms. After several tests, it was discovered a virus had left his heart damaged and pumping at only 32 percent. Numerous hospital visits and medications later, Gerald became depressed and fearful of dying.
“I went back to school and was doing my student teaching when I got my heart transplant,” he
said. “Everyone was crying. In the (19)50’s, needing a transplant was a death sentence.”
Compounding the problem was when further tests discovered he needed a liver transplant, too.
“I was sent home with more medication. I finished the semester before stopping school because I had an IV in my arm and the doctor added me to a list for a heart and liver transplant,” he said.
“I thought I’d never get it…Six months to a year was the average wait. In 29 days I got a call and I was so happy. I was scared for the surgery, but I knew I needed it. Five months later, I ran a 5K in the greatest time and met other recipients. It’s amazing what I can do now.
“I couldn’t walk around the block and now I can play basketball and swim. I returned to school and earned a degree in elementary education. Life is good. I volunteered for NJ Sharing Network before they hired me as community educator.”
“I volunteered for NJ Sharing Network and loved it,” Gerald told LocalSource in an Aug. 4 phone interview. “I believe in life and my purpose is to raise awareness. This is my calling. Life is about giving and caring.
“My story is depressing, but if it helps get donors and spread the importance of minority donation then it’s worth telling.”
Gerald is taking responsibility for getting minority communities involved and educated about organ donations.
“Health in general is important to prevent transplants in the first place. I encourage people in the community to stay active.
“My transplant was from a blonde-haired, blue-eyed individual who I’m assuming was Caucasian.”
“Plainfield is perfect because it’s near our headquarters and its diversity represents urban areas,” he said. “My own mother’s views have changed since my experience.
She felt like it was a terrible idea to donate organs and now supports NJ
Sharing Network and National Minority Donor Awareness Week.”
He has attended cookout and pot luck events in Plainfield to spread the word and also plans to get active in the faith-based community for Donor Sabbath Month in November.
“I plan to show a film called ‘The Wish’ where an African-American woman is in need of a transplant,” Gerald said.
“It’s a donate life movie. They had no idea it was a minority problem. Organ donations can break boundaries. Anyone can save a life. All races should be in this together.”