Kidney transplants plummeted during the pandemic, patients’ lives depend on them increasing again

ATASCOCITA, Texas – At first glance, you would think Sean Wilburn is a healthy, happy person. It’s hard to believe he goes home at the end of the day to commit to a night (9 hours) on an at-home dialysis machine.

“If I don’t hook up to it by 9 p.m., I’ll be late to work,” Wilburn points out that he wouldn’t have time to complete dialysis by the time he needs to be at work in the morning. “I’m grateful for the fact that it’s keeping me alive…. But it’s a lot.”

It is indeed a lot of hurting and waiting for about 2,800 Black Texans on the kidney transplant list.

Minorities actually make up the majority of that list.

In Texas, more than 45% of the 10,000 people on the kidney transplant waiting list are Hispanic and more than 25% are Black.

Many patients die waiting for those organs and during the pandemic, it’s gotten even worse.

Nationwide, transplant centers were only doing 50 operations a month, down from 600 before the pandemic started, according to Houston Methodist Hospital.

This is not an elective procedure. So, the decrease in operations is extremely discouraging for people who are clinging to the transplant list, waiting for a donor in order to stay alive.

Wilburn, a teacher from Atascocita, is doing what he can to control his destiny.

“I put it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter,” Wilburn said he’s posted his plea for a living donor.

It’s a good plan, if he can find someone because, during the coronavirus pandemic, transplant operations plummeted when doctors weren’t sure whether it was worth bringing patients in for an operation and hospital stay.

“Deceased donor transplants largely continued but the selection criteria for recipients changed in a way that you only took people who were less sick, younger, because those are the people who are less likely to contract the virus,” said Dr. Hassan Ibrahim, chief of Kidney Disease and Transplant patients at Houston Methodist. “The argument has been if you’re on dialysis in need of a kidney transplant and your brother wants to donate to you, will you still have that donor, maybe we should wait until we understand how the virus behaves and do the transplant. So, in summary, 80% of transplant programs in the U.S. continue to do deceased donor transplant but they refined their inclusion or acceptance criteria to people who would be considered low risk and over 90% of programs stopped doing live donor programs completely until we understand the virus.”

The good news is, Dr. Ibrahim said Houston Methodist Hospital is back up to speed to pre-pandemic operations but for several months, patients like Wilburn were losing hope and now he’s just hoping he didn’t missed the chance for a life-saving opportunity.

"I don’t think COVID should really be something to worry about when dealing with donating. You have people like myself who mean a lot to people. I’ve been an educator, this will be my 25th year and I have a lot of children that look at me as a father.

I think it would probably devastate some people if I weren’t here," Wilburn said.

If you’re interested in becoming a donor, click the link.


Q: Who can donate an organ?

A: Almost any healthy person can donate a kidney or liver while alive and continue living a normal life. Click here for some facts and myths about organ donation: https://www.kidneyregistry.org/living_donors.php#donor-protection

Q: What’s does it cost to donate a kidney?

A: The recipient’s insurance covers the cost of the operation. The National Kidney Registry also offers to pay for lost wages, transportation and parking.

Q: Will I miss work?

A: You’ll likely miss about six weeks of work, but you can be covered under disability or FMLA to ensure your job is there when you return. See your company’s policy on living donor leave. Also, see above about getting paid if your company doesn’t pay while on leave.

Q: If I die, how will my organs be donated?

A: Make sure you register as an organ donor. Also, make sure your family knows your wishes as they would be the ones confronted with this decision in the event of an untimely passing.

Q: How do I know if I’m a match?

Contact local hospitals to find out about becoming part of a swap. If you don’t know someone in need of a liver or kidney, tell them you’d like to become a good Samaritan donor, or click here.