It may seem hard to believe but the District has the highest rate of kidney disease per capita in the U.S. Meanwhile, the epidemic of kidney disease continues to sweep the country. Additionally, those desperately in need of a kidney in D.C. far outweigh the number of donors — more so than in any other city in the nation.
But despite such sobering statistics, hope has appeared on the horizon due in great part to the generosity of one local businessman whose personal journey forced him to come to terms with the life or death conditions one must face when kidney disease strikes home.
“Kidney disease came out of nowhere,” said Ron Paul, chairman and CEO of Eagle Bancorp and Eagle Bank, who was diagnosed in the 1980s with glomerulosclerosis — a kidney disease that can eventually end in kidney failure.
“I didn’t have any preexisting conditions — no diabetes, no high blood pressure, no issues at all other than I found out I had the onset of kidney failure,” said Paul, who would opt for a kidney transplant from his brother Steven eight years after his initial diagnosis, hoping to avoid a lifetime of dialysis.
Later, in 2008, he learned he would need another transplant. Again, he received a kidney donation — this time from a longtime friend, Kathy McCallum, the CFO of his company.
His experiences, lasting over several decades, moved Paul and his wife to action, donating a $2.5 million gift under the auspices of The Ronald and Joy Paul Foundation that established the GW Ron and Joy Paul Kidney Center to address the urgent need for greater community awareness of kidney disease diagnosis, prevention and treatment.
Paul never forgot how sick he once felt and his consuming fear about how he would be able to support his family on limited means while also trying to keep his company afloat. And so, with the arduous ordeal memories from their past, the Pauls set their sights on tipping the balance of kidney supply and demand — intent on helping others and saving the lives of other Washington area residents.
That’s where Dr. Keith Melancon entered — a Louisiana native who became the director of the George Washington Transplant Institute in 2013 as a professor of surgery and medical director of the GW Ron and Joy Paul Kidney Center.
With an impressive array of experiences, training, accomplishments and a well-earned reputation among his peers, both those living in the U.S. and abroad, most of his colleagues and patients point to his unwavering passion and dedication to extensive research that continue to center on his efforts to increase access to organ transplantation for minority and sensitized patients — all of whom have but few options for kidney transplantation.
“We started the center in January 2015 after two years of working to get the program up and running,” said Dr. Melancon, 48, whose successful transplant numbers since the doors first opened total 89, making it both one of the fastest-growing centers in the U.S. with the added impressive caveat of having among the shortest wait for patients in need in America.
“Access in the District was among the worst in the U.S. but our outcomes have been phenomenal particularly in Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8 where most of our patients have been Black,” he said. “We’re most proud of the live donor transplants for African Americans — 41 percent versus the average rate of 12 percent — especially since the best kind of kidney to receive is from a living donor.”
Dr. Melancon says far too many people fail to receive regular testing for kidney disease which, added to inadequate knowledge and false beliefs, have impacted minorities far more than other ethnic groups.
“Many think it’s a disease of the elderly — nothing could be further from the truth. And the assumption is there’s nothing one can do to prevent it — something that’s also false.”
“Eating a healthier diet, particularly cutting down on sodium and sugar — major components within African-Americans’ culturally-induced dietary habits — and being more active, like working out or even walking, can normalize one’s blood pressure, eliminate the need for diabetes treatment and help reduce one’s weight. Awareness and knowledge can prove to be lifesavers.”
So, is it that simple? Could a combination of heightened education and awareness, maintaining annual kidney checkups and making modifications in one’s diet and lifestyle, collectively endorsed and followed by Dr. Melancon and the Pauls, be the key to higher-quality and longer lives, especially for people of color?
Consider the poignant words of Alana Hunnicutt-Carroll who until recently had suffered from chronic kidney disease, even undergoing an earlier kidney transplant before turning to Dr. Melancon and his staff for help.
“He made a third chance at life possible and I’m now doing great — working part-time with my catering business and volunteering as an advocate for the amazing program and people at GWU,” said Hunnicutt-Carroll, a full-time federal government employee.
African-American patients, like Hunnicutt-Carroll, often turn to family and friends, however, Blacks suffer from a higher rate of blood pressure and diabetes, which can disqualify them as a donor.
After being denied twice as a donor due to kidney stones, her husband, Reginald Carroll, was able to step in.
“He was determined to donate one of his kidneys,” she said. “As a thank you, I promised him we could have another child — something we had discussed in the past.”
The couple already has a teenage son.
“It’s considered high-risk but it’s still very possible for me to conceive and have a healthy child,” she added. “I have a few months to go before reaching my one-year anniversary since the surgery. Then, I plan on keeping my promise to my husband.”
“I’m blessed and even more convinced that God still answers prayers,” she said.