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Multiethnic organ donors are on the rise in the region, kidneys in high demand for Latino patients

Several blue blood test strips have been spread out on a table. Near them are packaging for those strips, with one turned on its side with the cap open.
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Blood glucose test strips.

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Last year, Northern Nevada and California had the second highest number of multiethnic organ donors in the U.S. The organs most in demand for Latinos are kidneys due to rising rates of diabetes.

To get an organ transplant, finding a donor with a similar ethnic background helps. Doctors look at things like blood type and tissue markers to find the right match.

Tissue markers are a combination of genetic information that people get from their parents that can be compared to other organs. The closer that genetic information matches a donated organ, the better chance the transplant will be successful. This means it sometimes takes time to find a match, says Luis Mayen, vice president of Donor Network West, a federally designated nonprofit that manages organ transplants for Northern Nevada and California.

“Some of the differences are because of the different types of blood we have, or the different proportions of our bodies,” Mayen explained in Spanish. “And those are the reasons why sometimes one person has to wait more than others.”

To encourage donations, the organization began hiring staff that reflected the communities they were serving. They also started outreach programs like working with faith organizations such as the Catholic Church to let people know it’s morally ok to donate. They’ve also been dispelling rumors.

“Only when the patient is declared dead is when Donor Network West enters the conversation to explain the options for donations,” said Mayen.

According to Donor Network West, nearly 28% of all people on the waitlist in Nevada are Hispanic or Latino, and almost half of the people on the organ waitlist are from multiethnic communities.

The majority of Latinos on the waitlist need a kidney, says Mayen, because of diabetes.

Beto Plascencia is a community healthcare worker at Northern Nevada HOPES, where he’s focused on prevention and education of diabetes.

“A kidney transplant is normally because [the disease has] caused so much damage due to elevated or uncontrolled diabetes that [it starts] clogging up the veins and everything going towards that kidney, so it starts causing it to fail to the point where it starts dying off,” said Plascencia.

He wants to avoid this for as many people as possible.

“That’s another reason why we push even our retina scans,” he added, “so we can catch it and catch all of these diseases before it kills any of those body parts, and we can prevent the loss.”

Plascencia works alongside Jose Chinas, who says for Latinos, diabetes has been an issue in the community for so long. He added that diabetes has also been seen more often in children.

“They were once case studies, rare. Now it’s something common, something normal,” said Chinas in Spanish.

A CDC report published last year found that between the years 2001 and 2017, people under the age of 20 with Type 1 diabetes increased by 45%, while people living with Type 2 diabetes increased by 95%.

While diet and lifestyle don’t affect Type 1 diabetes, Chinas says the information they share during their community work is crucial for preventing Type 2; what they’re teaching is often small lifestyle changes over the long term.

“For example, an alternative to serving sugary cereal is providing a healthier cereal with fruit for breakfast,” he said.

Their work also involves explaining the roots of why ethnic groups like Latinos wrestle with diabetes.

Chinas says in Latin America, people are more mobile, using different modes of transportation. People are also eating fewer processed foods and meats, and access to fruits and vegetables is a lot easier; however, that changes when they come to the United States.

“If you realize it, in many places here where Latinos are more concentrated, it’s much more difficult to find food,” said Chinas.

Earlier this year, the Washoe County Health District began a promotional campaign for a series of neighborhood corner stores that have started to stock canned and frozen fruits and vegetables.

Chinas says going to a large store like a WinCo takes time, which is a privilege because many minority groups are historically underpaid and end up working additional hours, which means people are more tired and end up with less time for other things, like shopping for groceries.

“When we get home from work so late, what happens?” he asked. “We’re so tired that you eat, you sit on the couch, and you don’t do any exercise.”

There’s only so much people can do, he says, which is why they try to meet people where they are, providing suggestions and education so that people can begin to make small changes in how they live their lives - hopefully for the better.

Follow Gustavo on Instagram @gus.chavo and Twitter @goose_chavo.

This story was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Gustavo Sagrero is a former bilingual reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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