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EDITORIAL: Beyond organ compatibility, donor identity shouldn't matter



Organs

When a 2-year-old child born without kidneys needs a transplant to survive, the identity of the donor should have no impact on the viability of the procedure. 

Whether he or she matches with someone who has never spent a day behind bars or someone who has been incarcerated on multiple occasions, what matters is that the child receives the medical care he or she needs.

That priority seems so clear, and yet somehow, surgeons at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta deemed the kidney of A.J. Burgess’s father, Anthony Dickerson, unfit for donation because he was sent to prison after violating his parole. 

Instead of using Dickerson’s kidney, which was a 100-percent match for his son, Emory health care officials said Dickerson would have to show documentation of good behavior for three to four months before he could regain his eligibility

Rather than save A.J.'s life in October, Emory was prepared to wait until January 2018 to perform the procedure.

The Editorial Board finds this decision egregiously immoral and seriously questions the rationale that led to such an obvious mistake.

Emory Healthcare CEO Dr. Jonathan Lewin issued a statement to CNN claiming “Emory's medical team is required to consider the ability of the donor to manage the many complications and health challenges that come with a major surgical procedure.”

The accusation Dickerson faced of fleeing police while in possession of a firearm may indicate little respect for the law, but the Editorial Board does not believe this necessarily impedes his ability to save his son’s life.

The family attorney, Muwali Davis, said Dickerson’s “parole probation status should not, as far as we’re concerned, be a factor at all.” Dickerson himself said he would be fully compliant with Emory’s instructions. 

“I don’t see why they think it would be a problem for me to try to treat myself after I do the transplant,” Dickerson said. 

The only relevant factor that should affect a donor’s eligibility would be a decline in health, which raises concern about the viability of the organ, and no rational person could argue  the mere fact of violating parole could somehow corrupt Dickerson’s kidneys. 

Support from the surrounding community helped spur necessary action, showing it really does take a village. Activists from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology protested the hospital’s decision and demanded a meeting with officials.

A.J.’s parents’ lawyers and concerned community members met with Emory health care officials Nov. 2 to discuss the best treatment plan for A.J., and finally, the day before Thanksgiving, his family received a call from the transplant team announcing a viable donor.

A.J.’s kidney successfully produced urine after the procedure, and he spent the week following Thanksgiving recovering in Emory’s intensive care unit.

While the story ultimately has a happy ending, the risks A.J. faced because of Emory’s poor protocol interpretation were completely unnecessary. 

A.J. could very well have died while waiting for a replacement donor, especially considering reports from the Living Kidney Donors Network say there are currently 93,000 people on the kidney transplant list, and the typical wait time for a kidney match is five years. 

Children should never face any punishment for their parents’ mistakes, let alone a de facto death penalty. When interpreting medical policy, the focus should always be on improving the health of the patients it concerns.

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