Peoria Man Receives Heart, Champions for Organ Donation

Earlier this month, the Peoria Journal-Star reported on Percy Baker Jr.’s wait for a heart transplant. Percy had to step down from his position as the Executive Director of the George Washington Carver Center, due to his increasing health problems. Today, the Journal-Star reports that Percy has received his transplant and is on the fast path to recovery.

I’ve included the full story below and you can also read here.

-Scott

Heart recipient has a new mission
Ex-Carver Center chief on mend from transplant, hopes to be champion for organ donation
Monday, March 31, 2008

BY FRANK RADOSEVICH II
OF THE JOURNAL STAR

PEORIA – In November of last year, Percy Baker Jr. reluctantly announced he was stepping down as executive director of the George Washington Carver Center, citing his failing health as the reason for the premature retirement.

Now, less than six months later, he’s looking to head back to work.

This time, Baker, who underwent a heart transplant Feb. 24 after battling systolic heart failure for the past 10 years, hopes to turn his life-threatening ordeal into a positive message others will heed.

Heralded as a hard worker and community pillar in Peoria, the 58-year-old Baker said he hopes to become a spokesman of sorts for promoting organ donation, especially in central Illinois’ African-American community.

“I don’t think people really understand the importance of it,” said Baker last week after returning home from his month-long stay at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. “I’m not working anymore, but I can still do my pledge to help.”

Though still formulating a plan, Baker said he will use his many connections in Peoria to get the word out on the need for organ donation, employing his own story of survival as a public pitch.
The Peoria native had known for about the last six months he needed a new heart, but only learned the afternoon before his surgery that a suitable donor was found. The transplant went well and was followed up by a second surgery to repair some minor bleeding near the new heart. After spending six days recuperating in the intensive care unit at the hospital, Baker began walking around as doctors monitored his progress.

Now back at his East Bluff home, Baker has suffered some swelling in his legs from fluid pooling there and must return to Barnes-Jewish periodically for a biopsy on his new heart. He also recently began therapy sessions.

“Other than that, I’m doing fine,” he said. “I have friends that have been helping out.”

Besides the stress of the surgery, Baker also was saddled with more than $100,000 in medical expenses. Those wanting to help can donate to the Percy Baker Jr. trust fund at any South Side Bank branch. A fundraiser also will be held at the RiverPlex Recreation and Wellness Center from 7 p.m. to midnight May 2.

Before needing a transplant himself, Baker admitted organ donation wasn’t much of a burning issue in his life. That attitude, according to Community Affairs Specialist Carolyn Vazquez with Donate Life Illinois, is all too common.

Vazquez said the shortage becomes more dire with people of color, and the group’s African-American Task Force is working to raise awareness of the problem and boost donation among blacks. Despite the prevalence of kidney disease, diabetes and heart problems in African-Americans, their number of donors remains low.

As an example, Vazquez cited the fact that blacks account for 35 percent of people with kidney failure waiting for a new organ, though they comprise only 12 percent of the U.S. population. African-Americans typically wait three to four times longer for an organ than other races, she said.

Cultural myths and religious taboos are partly to blame for the shortage, Vazquez said, but lack of awareness and knowledge is also at fault.

Though patients can receive tissue and organs from a variety of donors, ideal matches usually come from someone of the same race or ethnicity. Vazquez said having someone like Baker speaking out will likely help boost donor levels.

“We need people to go out into the community there and spread the word on organ donation,” she said. “Most people don’t respond unless it affects them directly.” According to Donate Life America, nearly 100,000 people nationwide need organ transplants. Every 13 minutes, another name is added to the waiting list.

Frank Radosevich II can be reached at 686-3142 or fradosevich@pjstar.com.

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