August is National Minority Donor Awareness Month
by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
A few weeks ago, Brenda Tate, a retired Pittsburgh Police officer, called her younger brother, Larry Robinson, and was adamant that they go fishing. After all, it was something they used to do as kids, growing up in the Hill District and fishing down at the Allegheny River.
“It stank so bad (down there),” Tate, now 71, recalled. “We would come home smelling like oil.”
Though Robinson, now 70, isn’t a morning person, he agreed to take the two-hour trip to Erie’s Presque Isle State Park, where fishing is a popular pastime.
“I picked him up at 7 in the morning, we left Pittsburgh, we got there around 9 or 9:30, we stopped and had breakfast. We talked all the way up and all the way back. We talked about when we were children, growing up,” Tate said.
In between the reminiscing, Tate realized that her brother didn’t have a fishing license. They stopped at Field & Stream and handled that. Then, Robinson realized his fishing rods were 20 years old. “I made him buy some open face rods, and then I had to teach him how to use it,” Tate said, jokingly. “It was an amazing day.”
Tate told the New Pittsburgh Courier how great it was for her and her brother to have some bonding time. She said that at one point in her life, she went her direction, and her brother went his. “I became part of the police, he became the heavy equipment operator,” Tate said.
But the love has always been there between the siblings—Tate is the oldest, followed by Robinson, and a third sibling who has since passed. Growing up at 1927 Webster Ave. in the Hill, Tate could never forget all the good times she had with her two younger brothers.
And decades later, in early 2016, when she learned that Robinson’s health was failing to the point where he had to go on kidney dialysis, big sister came to his rescue.
Tate became an organ donor.
“I called his wife, and I said, ‘Why can’t he get a kidney?’ And she said, ‘I’m not a match and I can’t do it.’
And I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Tate recalled.
But Robinson, a Penn Hills resident who had diabetes and a number of other ailments, was unable to receive a kidney, doctors said, because his diabetes was too bad.
Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. When blood sugar levels are too high, over time, it damages a person’s kidneys. If kidneys are damaged, waste and fluids can build up in the person’s blood instead of leaving the body. Kidney damage from diabetes is officially called “diabetic nephropathy.”
Tate told the Courier how she went into fasting and prayer for the next two months in early 2016, hoping that good news would come from the situation. And it did. “That March (2016), the doctors called and said, ‘If you’re still willing to give up your kidney, he’s good to go.’”
Brenda Tate and her brother, Larry Robinson, with Dr. Amit D. Tevar, left, who performed the transplant surgery on Robinson.
The month of August is National Minority Donor Awareness Month. It began in 1996 from renowned transplant surgeon Clive Callender, M.D., who originally held the occasion for one day (August 1) to encourage more African Americans to become organ donors. Over the years, more Blacks have become organ donors, though there can never be enough. Currently, there are 113,000 people on the waiting list for an organ transplant, with nearly 30 percent of them African Americans. And while the majority of all people needing a transplant are in need of a kidney, for African Americans, it’s almost exclusively the organ needed (93 percent).
About one-fourth of all African Americans in need of a transplant receive one each year, leaving 75 percent having to wait another year. And as Blacks receive a transplant, they are quickly replaced by another African American who is diagnosed with needing a transplant.
There are two ways to become an organ donor—while you’re living, or after you’ve passed (cadever). But when it comes to living organ donors, the American Journal of Kidney Diseases (the official journal of the National Kidney Foundation) reported in 2012 that Blacks were least likely to receive a living kidney donation.
Tate became a living organ donor, even though she wasn’t a match for her brother, Robinson. Through what’s called a “chain organ donor,” a person who is not a match for one person, could be a match for another person. In Tate’s case, she was a match for a man who needed a kidney in Erie. That man’s wife, who was not a match for her husband, gave her kidney to someone else who was a match. As the chain went on, doctors found a Caucasian woman who was a match for Robinson. She gave up her kidney for Robinson.
But it wouldn’t have happened if Tate didn’t agree to give her kidney to someone.
Robinson received his kidney on Sept. 19, 2017, and one month later, Oct. 19, Tate donated her kidney to a man in Erie.
“I went in that Thursday (Oct. 19, 2017), and I was home Saturday (Oct. 21),” Tate recalled to the Courier, her procedure occurring at UPMC Montefiore. “I had very little pain and I wanted to go home that Friday, the next day, and they said, ‘No, let’s hold you one more day to make sure everything is working right. I had very little pain because of the (small) incision.”
And the best part? “I didn’t pay for anything,” Tate said. “My brother’s insurance apparently paid for everything.”
Besides the financial part, Tate said the real “best part” about the entire ordeal was that Robinson no longer had to be on dialysis, now fitted with his new kidney. “He’s doing well,” she said. “He’s 6-feet-3 and he always pretty robust. However, he’s not as robust as he used to be. But he gets around. He’s doing very well.”
Robinson is a fighter. In addition to the diabetes and dialysis, in the past few years he fell and broke his leg in three places. But, to no one’s surprise, he recovered.
Joy Starzl, wife of the late pioneer transplant surgeon Dr. Thomas Starzl, is Tate’s godsister. So, Tate had known some things about transplantation, but it “never crossed my mind that I would have to do something like this,” she told the Courier.
In Pittsburgh, the Center for Organ Recovery has an abundance of details about how to become an organ donor. The organization helps to dispel untrue myths about organ donation, and clearly outlines the donation process. To reach the local CORE office, call 412-963-3550.
“I want them to know that you have an opportunity to give life,” Tate said to those who may want to become organ donors. “You see your loved one and say, ‘How can I help?’ You have an opportunity to save your loved one’s life.”
The first time that Tate saw Robinson after Tate’s organ donation, she said to him, jokingly: “You know, we’re even now, Larry.”
After all, the siblings couldn’t forget how, when Tate was around 9 years old and Robinson was slightly younger, Tate didn’t like her younger brother always following her. One day, as the young Robinson followed the young Tate, she decided to run. He ran after her. She ran into an abandoned storefront on Webster Avenue and she slammed the door.
“The next thing I heard was him screaming,” Tate told the Courier.
Her brother, Robinson, was so close to her that when she slammed the door, Robinson’s hand was in the path and the force of the door knocked most of Robinson’s finger off. He was around 7 or 8 years old at the time, and he was rushed to the hospital. Two police officers came back to the storefront, found the missing part of the finger, and doctors were able to reattach it.
“Now we’re even,” Tate jokingly told her brother. “I owed you a finger…so now you got a kidney.
BRENDA TATE AND HER YOUNGER BROTHER, LARRY ROBINSON. A number of ailments for Robinson led to critical kidney problems. When Tate learned that Robinson would be placed on kidney dialysis, she had no doubt that she would donate a kidney of her own, which helped Robinson find a match through a chain donor.