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Organ transplantation is a highly specialized field of study with an equally small community of doctors, researchers, medical professionals, and activists. Still, there are minority pioneers who are working to not only promote organ donation (while hoping to dispel misinformation that keeps African Americans from considering organ donation and transplantation) but to also advance the field of study. These leaders, who are in direct conversation with minority groups that are normally left out of the larger conversation on America’s lack of organ donations, see the inequalities and are committed to eradicating them. So, it’s only fitting that during National Minority Donor Awareness Month we highlight two prominent trailblazing African American figures whose tireless work and advocacy are saving countless lives.

A devout Christian, Dr. Callender, who worked as a medical missionary in Africa, believes firmly that his profession is his raison d’etre, a calling rooted in his spiritual beliefs.

Dr. Clive O. Callender

Dr. Clive O. Callender, an African American transplant surgeon and professor of surgery at Howard University’s College of Medicine is a leader in the field of organ transplantation and organ donor awareness, beginning his work in 1974 when he created The Howard University Hospital Transplant Center, a first for a historically Black university. He once said, “one of the things I learned early on [in my career] was that there was a shortage of donors and a complexity in this shortage of donors, and that minorities and African-Americans were rarely donors.” In the hopes of fixing these inherent inequalities, and improving the health of minority patients so that organ transplantation isn’t needed, Dr. Callender then founded the National Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program, otherwise known as MOTTEP, in 1991. Out of that came National Minority Donor Awareness Week and then eventually National Donor Awareness Month. MOTTEP has received funding from the National Institutes of Health Office of Research On Minority Health. Since its inception, organ donation among African Americans has more than tripled. A nationally-recognized advocate, Callender, who became only the third African American transplant surgeon, later became Chair of the Department of Surgery and Professor of Surgery at Howard University in 1996.

A devout Christian, Dr. Callender, who worked as a medical missionary in Africa, believes firmly that his profession is his raison d’etre, a calling rooted in his spiritual beliefs. “I had a rich experience as a church person, and I thought that this was something I should try to do. Yes, it was an impossible dream. But then, in my life, the impossible often became possible. So, this became the challenge that I took up.”

The need for more kidney donations should matter to African American patients because they are three times more likely than white patients to have kidney failure. Further, African Americans are more likely to wait longer for lung, kidney and heart transplants, a national emergency Dr. Callender has spent a lifetime trying to ameliorate. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and physiology from Hunter College and a Medical Doctorate from Meharry Medical College. Howard University has bestowed him with an honorary doctorate.

“In 1986 Scantlebury was awarded a research fellowship at UPMC to work with Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, a pioneer of liver transplantation. She spent the next two years in the clinic. She told the Alumni News that ‘It really was the boot camp of fellowships.’ Because of the high mortality in pediatric transplant patients at the time, it was emotionally devastating work.”
— Alumni News

Dr. Velma Scantlebury-White

Dr. Velma Scantlebury-White, America’s first African American female transplant surgeon, has long championed a more equitable organ allocation system. “One of the issues we see is the delay in getting to the waitlist, especially in a lot of rural areas,” she said. “Another issue involves disparities. There’s still a difference in those who are being transplanted with living donors, in terms of people of color vs. Caucasians.” Many research figures suggest that African American kidney patients spend more time waiting for a donation. This delay can impede a successful transplant experience since the longer the patient waits, the sicker they usually are by the time they undergo surgery. Finding these figures unacceptable, Dr. Scantlebury-White, has worked tirelessly to promote increased donor awareness.

Born in Barbados, Dr. Scantlebury-White began her illustrious career in 1988, working at Pitt School of Medicine in Pittsburgh until 2002.  Early in her career, she worked under pioneering transplant surgeon Dr. Thomas Starlz, who performed the first human liver transplant. Estimating that she’s performed over 2000 transplants, Dr. Scantlebury-White eventually landed at Christiana Care Transplant  Program in Newark, Delaware. After making her mark on the field of kidney transplantation, she retired, though she now conducts online lectures for Texas Christian University.

Dr. Scantlebury-White has been awarded numerous awards, from The Gift of Life Award from The National Kidney Foundation, to the Best Doctor in America award, and the Order of Barbados Gold Crown of Merit. She’s also given lectures to the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the Wilmington Chapters of The Links, Inc.

We owe a debt of gratitude to these two leaders in the field of organ transplantation. In order for the entire transplant system to work cohesively, we need to have informed patients, generous donors, and skilled medical professionals who can continue to modernize one of the most life-affirming surgeries that exist. It will always be imperative that we say the names of those who have dedicated their careers to the transfer of life from one patient to another.

Kim Lute, Contributor

Lute is the Regional Marketing Manager for Morehouse School of Medicine’s Cardiovascular Research Institute. Before joining Morehouse, Ms. Lute worked as Peabody and DuPont award-winning journalist for CNN International. She later wrote for the Huffington Post where her opinion pieces frequently focused on America’s uneven political and social landscape. Her other bylines have appeared in The New York Times. The Guardian, Newsweek, The Washington Post’s Root Magazine, The Atlantan and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, among many others. She recently received her Master’s in Narrative Nonfiction Writing from the University of Georgia in Athens. Currently, she is penning a book on organ transplantation titled, WHAT TO DO WITH JOY, TO BE YOUNG. BLACK, DRIVEN AND SICK. It will be the first transplant  memoir written by an African American. She is a two-time liver transplant recipient and is passionate about increasing organ donor awareness. She is represented by the Ayesha Pande Literary Agency in New York.