The parents of Austin high school student Jermaine Cullum, Jr., who died in May of an apparent heart ailment, was honored Wednesday by Gift of Hope, an organ donor procurement agency, for their decision to donate their late son’s organs for medical research.
Tarcia Patton and Jermaine Cullum, Sr. decided to donate the 16-year-old’s heart and other organs following his death on May 6. A sophomore at Austin’s Christ the King Jesuit College Prep, Cullum died three days after collapsing while playing in a school basketball tournament game in Riverside.
His mom allowed him to be taken off life support after three days in a coma with no brain activity and unable to breath on his own.
Wednesday’s event took place at the grand opening of Gift of Hope’s Chicago satellite office, 2600 S. Michigan. The parents were presented with a plaque from Gift of Hope President Kevin Cmunt. Other dignitaries in attendance included Secretary of State Jesse White, whose office helps register organ donors when people sign up for state ID cards.
“Because of the generosity of his parents, his story lives on. That’s what organ and tissue donating is all about,” Cmunt said.
Cullum, his mom recalled, was interested in becoming an organ donor and planned to sign up for it when he and his mom went for state IDs.
“He wanted to do it,” Patton said. “He knew that I’m an organ donor, but we never got a chance for him to get an ID card.”
The Michigan Avenue office will house the agency’s African American Task Force, which will work to encourage more blacks to become organ donors. Gift of Hope is headquartered in Itasca.
Since his death, Cullum’s story has caused a marked increase in the number of phone calls the task force has fielded about organ donation, according to the agency.
While African Americans comprise about 12 percent of the national population, they make up 29 percent of the population waiting for organ transplants, according to the agency’s website.
There are about 5,400 candidates in Illinois on the waiting list. Of those, nearly 2,200, or about 41 percent, are African American, a group that makes up about 15 percent of the state’s population.
Patton said that, before her son’s death, she wasn’t aware of the dire need for organs, particularly among African Americans. She was, however, well-acquainted with some of the taboos and fears within the black community regarding becoming donors.
“A lot of people are scared. They don’t have the education to know what’s going on,” Patton said. “That stops a lot of people from registering. They just need information. They don’t know that when you donate your organs, you’re saving lives.”
And long before he became the face of the state’s organ and tissue donor program, White was a grieving brother who refused to allow his late sibling’s organs to be donated.
He was no different from the millions of African Americans who were practically written off by most organ procurement agencies decades ago, says Jack Lynch, Gift of Hope’s director of community affairs. Lynch recalled reading a newspaper article 25 years ago reporting on such an agency.
“They felt that blacks weren’t and weren’t ever going to be organ donors,” he said.
Lynch set off to prove them wrong, but more than two decades later, he says there’s still quite a ways to go.
“The paradigm has to shift. We’ve got to do a better job,” he said.
When Lynch entered the transplantation field, the national waiting list of donor recipients was about 10,000 people. Today, it’s about 100,000. Roughly 75 percent of the organs that could be used for transplants go unrealized, Lynch said, adding that the disparity becomes more pronounced when race or ethnicity comes into play.
Cook County Commissioner Bobby Steele, who also spoke at Wednesday’s event, recalled his diagnosis of renal failure five years ago. When he got the news, he called Lynch.
The two went out to lunch, where Lynch educated him on the organ transplant process. After waiting for two years, Steele couldn’t find a match.
“Jack asked if I had any relatives who may be matches,” Steele said, recalling that his sister turned out to be a match. Four years — and one new kidney later — Steele said he has not experienced any relapses.
White recalled that he wasn’t a true believer in the state’s organ program until he nearly lost his sister — an organ donation saved her life.
“You may not have a need today, you may not have a need tomorrow, but sometime in your lifetime, you or someone you know may have a need for an organ,” he said.
Cullum’s parents said they hope that White’s proactive message resonates with people in the Austin community.
Michael Romain is founder and editor of TheVillageFreePress.org
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