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Advocates Encourage Native Americans to Donate Organs - 2003-10-21


Medical research shows that the chances of a successful organ transplant increase with organs donated by members of the same ethnic and racial group as the recipient. So, health advocates in South Dakota are making the call for organ donors on the state's Indian reservations. With high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic ailments on the reservations, the demand for organs is great, yet supply remains scarce.

Victor Runnel, 67, suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, and three days a week, he undergoes dialysis for his faltering kidneys. The Oglala Lakota artist says his best hope is for a kidney transplant.

"I just went through a whole series of tests at the Mayo Clinic, to find out if my body can stand up to a transplant," said Mr. Runnel. "I've just finished all but one test, and when I finish that test then I'll be ready to get onto the list."

But even if Mr. Runnel is placed on the list of transplant candidates, his ordeal will be far from over. He'll join roughly 1,400 other Native Americans already on the National Organ Waiting List. It's a long list… and a longer wait. Fewer than a dozen Indians donate organs, eyes, or tissue each year. That pales in comparison to other ethnic groups. According to transplant experts, 43 percent of whites, 31 percent of Hispanics, and 22 percent of African-Americans said they'd donate their organs after death. Chris Belitz, executive director of the South Dakota Lions Eye Bank, says that disparity has its roots in traditional Lakota beliefs.

"The one that I've been introduced to is their spiritual belief that they need to take their body intact with them to the spiritual world," she said. "If they donate, then their spirit will be unrestful, it'll not be able to be complete."

Ms. Belitz says while she respects Lakota spirituality, she's trying to convince tribal members to donate. With a grant from the U.S. government, she's sending an Eye Bank representative to 3 reservations around South Dakota to discuss organ donation. It's a discussion that's already going on in many families. Cathy Ducheneaux, a Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member and nurse, says she opposed transplants on spiritual grounds, until her 11-year-old daughter said she wanted to be an organ donor:

"`But Mom', she says, `we have to help other people'. And I said, 'If something was going to happen to you, I don't know if I could say `Yeah, go ahead and take her heart.' It took me a long time to come to that conclusion," said Ms. Ducheneaux. "And as Lakota people, that's part of our culture too, is to give to another, to a relative...and in our eyes, we're all relatives."

And Carol Robertson, an elder with the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe says many Native Americans have already sacrificed parts of their bodies, on the battlefield.

"You know, we gave away body parts as soldiers in Vietnam and Europe," she said. "And we came back as amputees, maimed and wounded warriors. And we don't feel that our body and spirit don't go together to the spirit world. Our spirit leaves, and it is then that we are made whole."

Ms. Robertson received a corneal transplant in 1993, and says the improvement in her sight allowed her to learn the computer and be a safer driver. But she and Cathy Ducheneaux say getting others to share "the gift of life" is a challenge because many tribal spiritual leaders oppose the practice.

But not all. Rick Two Dog is an Oglala Lakota medicine man on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and says he supports organ donation if done properly:

"I would advocate for it in the sense that they acknowledge a person's spirit," he said. "We feel that a spirit follows your body parts, so if I donated kidneys to somebody, then my spirit would follow them."

Mr. Two Dog says he believes a recipient should also stay in touch with the donor's relatives. Acknowledging these spiritual beliefs while encouraging more Indian organ donors will demand patience and sensitivity from health advocates. But, with diabetes and heart disease ravaging "Indian Country," the most convincing argument may simply be the chance for better and longer lives for those living on the reservation.