African American organ donors are in short supply

Organs are usually not matched according to race or ethnicity — but in Robert Chelsea's case it was necessary.
Robert Chelsea, a face transplant recipient, and his daughter Ebony.
Posted at 4:03 PM, May 07, 2024

On any given day, around 100,000 people — or about the seating capacity of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — are waiting for some sort of organ, according to Health and Human Services.

An organ donor gives a part of their body, whether tissue or an actual organ, to another person — something the Geselowitz family has experienced. Charlene Geselowitz is the mother of an organ donor.

“This is our beautiful daughter, Kali Rose. She will forever be 3. Kali saved four lives through the gift of organ donation. She saved two little baby boys and two adults,” said Charlene Geselowitz. Her family donated Kali’s organs to save lives.

Some of the most sought-after organs according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services are the kidney, liver, heart, lungs, pancreas and intestines.

Organs are usually not matched according to race or ethnicity — but in Robert Chelsea's case it was necessary.

“With the face, it had to have a lot more DNA that is cultural influence. It couldn't be a female, it couldn't be Caucasian and it couldn’t be Asian. The hospital found a donor in 2018, but that donor was way, way, way too light.” said Robert Chelsea, the recipient of a full face transplant.

Chelsea received his transplant in 2019, making him the oldest transplant patient in the United States and the first Black man to get a full face transplant.

Chelsea was headed home from church in 2013 when police say a drunk driver slammed into his car, causing an explosion that burned 60% of his body — including his face.

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“Do you think you would have found one faster if more African Americans were donors?” Scripps News' Tammy Estwick asked.

“Oh, yeah. We would have obviously found one faster if there were more Black organ donors. And it's imperative, I wouldn't have this face if it weren't for a Black family,” replied Chelsea.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services says African Americans make up the largest group of minorities in need of an organ transplant — but the group is falling behind on being organ donors.

The HHS says that in 2021, 18.7% of non-Hispanic Blacks were living donors, as compared to 33.6% of White people being living donors.

It's why places like OneLegacy put on annual events, like the Life Run/Walk in May, to raise awareness.

“You have to actually meet people where they are. And so, over the last two years, we've been actively taking an approach in letting real voices talk to real people,” said E’Tiffany Jones, communications director for OneLegacy.

OneLegacy is the nation’s largest organ procurement organization serving the diverse Southern California region. They work with hospitals, transplant centers and the community.

With numerous surgeries under his belt, Robert Chelsea's daughter and caregiver Ebony Chelsea was worried about him having a face transplant, until her mom explained what Chelsea was going through.

“I was scared for the surgery again because of what he went through. And now, another huge surgery could be another complication. I didn't think it was a health purpose. I just thought, why? ... But when my mom brought me back, you know, and opened my eyes to what he really wanted," said Ebony.

“It's been years now. I grew on it, but I still know it's not his face, it's not him. But when I first saw him — oh, it was difficult. I just couldn't imagine ... but he opens his mouth —oh yeah, I know, that's him. I'm like Dad, hush! That did not change," Ebony lovingly said as she laughed.

This year marks Chelsea’s 5th year with a new face.

But Chelsea says he’s not out of the woods yet. He recently ended up in the hospital for a stint, but he left in good spirits. Rejection of the transplant is always a possibility, he says. That's why he takes over 20 medications daily.

“For some reason, God saw fit to let the lilies surround me in the valley. I believe that I should continue to enjoy the ride,” Chelsea said.