A lifelong St. Louis resident has become one of the oldest organ donors in US history. Before Delores Johnson passed away at the age of 88, she told her family members that when she couldn’t use her body anymore, she wanted someone else to be able to. That heroic decision came to fruition when Johnson became an organ donor and successfully donated her liver, an unusual feat for someone at such an advanced age, and who also happened to be a cancer survivor.
Building her community and touching the lives of others was nothing new for Johnson. For 42 years, she served as a secretary for the St. Louis Board of Education, helping to enable bright futures for children. Before working for the public school system, Johnson graduated from Hubert Business College to complete secretary school and first worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The example she sets as an organ donor has the potential for great impact. August is National Minority Donor Awareness Month, a collaborative effort by the National Organ, Eye, and Tissue Donation Multicultural Action Group to help save and heal the lives of diverse communities and bring heightened awareness to the health disparities that exist for minorities. The campaign also aims to create a supportive culture for organ, eye, and tissue donation and is a critical effort to drive the positive messages that are needed for minority communities to make the decision to become registered organ donors.
The fact is, multicultural communities make up nearly 60 percent of the more than 100,000 people who are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants. While transplants can be successful regardless of the ethnicity of the donor and recipient, the chance of longer-term survival may be greater if the donor and recipient are closely matched in terms of their shared genetic background. It makes Johnson’s impact through her donation that much more significant.
Johnson’s story also highlights the possibility that no matter how old you are, you can still potentially give the gift of life through organ donation. In fact, there’s no age limit for registering to become an organ donor. At 95 years old, Cecil F. Lockhart recently became the oldest recorded organ donor in United States history.
Doctors say the issue is health, not age. A series of tests by medical professionals determine a person’s eligibility to be an organ donor. Additionally, even with those conditions, it can still be possible to pass on the gift of life through tissue and cornea donation.
Johnson was often described as a person who cared deeply for those around her and showed it through her actions. According to her loved ones, she welcomed neighbors as her own family. She kept in touch with many of her classmates, and recently attended her 50th high school reunion. She was even a member of the Crusaders Social Club, which sponsored dances and raised money for charities.
Through it all, Johnson remained deeply devoted to her family, including her son, Ozell, his wife Margaret, and her grandson. Delores passed away shortly after her grandson’s high school graduation – a proud moment to watch the little boy she helped raise. Before her passing she told her family, “I’m just happy I got to see him graduate high school.”
It’s no surprise that as a long-time registered organ donor, she inspired her family members to follow suit and become registered organ donors, too.
The organ donation community hopes more people will be inspired by Johnson’s story and her determination to save a life through the heroic act of organ donation. Data continues to show that minority ethnic groups are more likely to need a lifesaving organ transplant. Certain diseases that can lead to organ failure, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, are more prevalent in diverse communities. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “African Americans, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders are three times more likely than Caucasians to suffer from end-stage renal disease, often as a result of high blood pressure and other conditions.” Plus, the rate of African Americans who have kidney failure caused by high blood pressure is 20 times higher than Caucasians.
Johnson will be greatly missed by those who knew her. As a mother, a grandmother, and now an organ donor, her legacy lives on.
By registering as an organ, eye, and tissue donor, you can bring hope to patients and families who are holding out for a miracle and bridge the gap between the demand for organ donations and the availability of viable, lifesaving organs from diverse donors. Sign up for the donor registry and increase the chance that patients waiting will get the transplants they need to survive.