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VCU Health Podcast: Discussing Race, Ethnicity, and Organ Transplants

Dionne Wynn-Criss is joined by Marcelle Davis DSL to talk about being a living donor.
VCU Health Podcast: Discussing Race, Ethnicity, and Organ Transplants
Dionne Wynn-Criss | Marcelle Davis, DSL

Dionne Wynn-Criss is a North Carolina resident and living kidney donor who donated a kidney to her husband in August 2020. For Dionne’s full story of living donation, visit VCU Health News.

Most recently serving as lead, diversity, equity and inclusion, at Booz Allen Hamilton, Marcelle Davis, DSL has 20 years of experience in evaluating business landscapes, analyzing workforce and recruiting metrics, and implementing projects and institutional policies that integrate inclusion. 

Learn more about Marcelle Davis, DSL 


Scott Webb: August is National Minority Donor Awareness Month. And in this special episode of the Healthy Podcast, I'm joined by North Carolina resident, Dionne Wynn-Criss, who heroically donated the kidney to her husband, Al, in August of 2020. And I'm also joined by Dr. Marcelle Davis. She's the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at VCU Health. And in addition to hearing Dionne's story, we're going to discuss organ transplantation through the DEI lens.

This is Healthy with VCU Health. I'm Scott Webb. So first off, it's great to have you both on. August is National Minority Donor Awareness Month. And Dionne, earlier this month, you celebrated the first anniversary of your husband's kidney transplant and your amazing donation. As a living donor and his wife, what does the anniversary mean to you and your family?

Dionne Wynn-Criss: So, this year, it was funny that the anniversary rolled out and we had all these plans to go to dinner, but my daughter's school was closed down for COVID cases, so we had to go get her. But we celebrated at home. We had pizza, wings and we just really talked about what it meant for us over the last year. We look back and I can't even describe how one year made such a difference in his life, in how well he is, how he looks. It just meant everything. It just went by so fast. I couldn't even think about it. And I'm like, "My gosh. He's a different person from last year to this year." Completely different, it's awesome.

Scott Webb: It certainly is awesome. And I just was thinking, you know, as you were speaking, thinking about this past year, what we've all been through with COVID, right? To even consider kidney donation, kidney transplantation, you know, during this incredibly difficult and strange year for all of us. I mean, I'm just so happy to hear your story and so happy that you got to celebrate. Pizza and wings? That's so great. And Dionne, as a minority and a living donor, why is it important for us to talk as we are today about race, ethnicity, organ donation and transplantation?

Dionne Wynn-Criss: So I think being from the community, we have so many doubts often with the health profession, that many people are not willing to donate. But for me, my father also was a kidney survivor. My uncle gave him his kidney. And so I automatically knew like, this is what you do for your family. And if I'm a match, I want to help immediately. But because I was in that family who was impacted, I knew that. There are so many people that don't know the value of being a donor and having a living donor is even better than having deceased donor. Your chances for survival, your chances for the kidney to survive are so much greater with the living donor. And I guess donating or being a living donor doesn't even cross many people's minds unless it's directly impacting their home.

And it was just maybe a few weeks ago when I went to church for my nephew's funeral unfortunately. They had a doctor there that was speaking about the importance of us knowing our health, knowing our background, knowing the conditions that lead to us having diabetes, having high blood pressure, to keep us off of donor lists. That's not spoken about a lot in our community. And I think having something like billboards or physicians coming into churches and to schools to speak to the underprivileged in the black and brown communities would be so helpful.

Scott Webb: It certainly would. And I'm hoping that this podcast also sort of serves and helps really fuel the conversation. And I'm so sorry to hear about your nephew as if this hasn't been a tough enough year.

Dionne Wynn-Criss: Right. Thank you.

Scott Webb: Yeah. And I'm so glad that we're having this conversation. And Dr. Davis, I want to bring you in. Why do you and VCU Health believe these discussions are so important?

Dr. Marcelle Davis: Oh, wow. Great question. Thank you so much. I'm so happy to be here. So, I believe that this month really creates an opportunity for all communities to gain a greater understanding around these topics, simply because it helps groups who are disproportionately affected. And let's face it, it's like Dr. Maya Angelou said, “We do better when we know better.” Additionally, I think as a health system, VCU, we believe that it's important to view these topics through that DEI lens, because it positions us to have open discussions and raise awareness about key topics like organ transplantation and living and deceased organ donation.

And while my role is an inaugural one for the health system, it was created last year, but the commitment that our leaders have to ensuring that DEI is woven into the fabric of our health system is not one that's new. But there are things as you can imagine that we must do if we are going to create meaningful change and conversations like these sort of sets the stage for us to do that. And that's the long answer, right? But the short answer is these discussions are important because racial bias could mean life or death for our patients. And because we do better when we know better and these discussions equip us to listen and learn so that we can take much needed action together.

Scott Webb: Absolutely, I love that. We do better when we know better. That's just so well said. That's so perfect. And really, it's so important to this conversation. And I know you're both aware that in the US, there's a substantial gap between the demand for organ transplants and the supply of donated organs as we're discussing. The transplant waiting list currently stands at more than 100,000 with more than 60% representing racial and ethnic minorities. I mean, the need is staggering. And what's more according to the National Kidney Foundation, African-Americans are three times more likely than white Americans to have kidney failure leading to the need for the transplants in the first place. Members of the Latinx community are 1.5 times more likely to have kidney failure. Dionne, all that said, what's your reaction to the data and this dire need, the need for organ transplants in multicultural communities?

Dionne Wynn-Criss: As you read off the numbers, I sat here and I literally was shaking my head.

Scott Webb: I know.

Dionne Wynn-Criss: It hurts my heart to hear those numbers. It matters that people in your community of your ethnicity donate.

Scott Webb: And as you've mentioned here, a couple of times, living donations are key. Deceased donation are welcomed. And those families, that's a heroic act as well, but the living donations are key, to elongating or sustaining the life of that kidney and the life of the recipient. You've made that point today and you're absolutely right. And Dr. Davis, how large a role does having a health system-wide focus on diversity, equity and inclusion play?

Dr. Marcelle Davis: Wow. You know, having a health system-wide focus on DEI, it literally changes the game for us as a health care system. That's because it really ensures that we're all singing from the same sheet music, so to speak. I mean, each of us is really responsible for the success of DEI. It's in the way we communicate; the way we attract, hire and onboard team members; the way we promote our team members, the images on our website, the job descriptions we create. I mean, the list goes on and on, right? It's the criteria we use to select our external vendors. And even the way we embrace our history, bad or good, and grow from it. All of these things together ensure that when we work with our patients, we do so from a culturally proficient manner that recognizes our patients is more than their skin tone. They're a whole person and they should be seen for their race, their culture, their ethnicity, gender identification, sexual orientation, preferred name, and pronoun use. And having that health system-wide focus, that's what's needed to provide optimum health and a health system-wide focus on DEI positions us to do that. And we've made progress. But the truth is that we still got a lot of work to do.

Scott Webb: Yeah, we all do. Absolutely, when it comes to DEI and so many other things, but especially DEI. And at VCU Health, it sounds like, as you say, we're making progress, which is important. Dionne, as I knew that I was going to be hosting this, I wanted to speak to you about this and ask you some of these questions because, you know, I've done some of these and it's been sort of theoretical, but you're a real person who did this. So, what was it like to be a living donor? We like to call them heroes, especially at VCU Health. You really are a hero. Not that you walk down the street thinking, "Yeah, I'm pretty heroic." But let's be honest, Dionne. You're a hero. I want to know what it's like. You know, waking up in the morning and saying, "You know what? Geez, I only have one kidney, but I saved my husband's life." You know, it's amazing. What do you want people to know, especially those that have fears about doing this? What do you want them to know about being a living donor?

Dionne Wynn-Criss: It's like every other day for me, unfortunately! I don't wake up thinking I'm a hero. My husband says it regularly, but I really feel like I did what I was supposed to do. Going into it, I was not afraid. And I know that sounds weird, but I wasn't afraid at all. People were like, "Oh my gosh. You know, you could die. What are you going to do if your kidney fails?" I did the research. I made sure that I knew all the risks and I felt like I trust my doctors. I'm healthy. I only need one kidney to live. I can sustain. I exercise daily. I eat right. And I think that those things are important for me to continue to survive. But if we can give to someone else and help them to also live a better life and a longer life, why not do it? Of course. It hurts. However, I think maybe a month or so later, it's like I didn't mind going through that pain at all when I can see the goodness that came from that. It didn't feel like it was taking something from me at all.

Scott Webb: That is so well said. And I'm so glad I got to ask you these questions and I think it's amazing. I'm sure, I'm positive, Dionne, your husband already referred to you as hero right before you gave him the kidney. And now, you know, he's really emphasizing that point. I just love that Al refers to you as a hero. And you are and it's amazing. And Dr. Davis, what goes through your mind just hearing Dionne's story?

Dr. Marcelle Davis: Oh, my goodness. First, Dionne, gosh, what a hero. I agree. And Dionne, you and other living donors like yourself, you're all heroes in my book. And, you know, beyond your story and your husband's story is a clear example and a reminder that our health system is committed to passionate care for all. And I'm proud to be a part of a health system with the leaders who they're not afraid to have these often difficult conversations that are related to race and ethnicity and how those two things connect to health care. It's truly a reflection in my mind of VCU Health System's philosophy of holistic care to treat and care for the entire person. I mean, just last year, our Hume-Lee Transplant Center was above the national average in transplanting minority patients. Such amazing work by that team and many others. I'm so proud to be a part of this organization.

Scott Webb: Yeah. And I'm proud to be a part of this, my little small part here hosting the podcast. And I don't know that we've ever used the words amazing and heroic so many times in a podcast, but it seems so appropriate. And Dionne, as we get close to wrapping up here, we've sort of kept listeners on the edge of their seats, get to the most important question now, how is your husband doing? How is Al doing?

Dionne Wynn-Criss: Oh, he is doing so wonderful. He literally, I think he was at 161 when we went in for surgery. I hope he doesn't mind me saying, but he's at 208 right now. He eats like you wouldn't believe! He just started exercising with me. We bought a Peloton during the pandemic, and he rode for the first time last week. And he was like, "Whoa, I didn't know if I was ready for this." But you can see the life back in his face. I literally, and I apologize for crying, but I get choked up when I think about it. I saw him deteriorating, and he has so much life right now. I'm so proud of him. If he was afraid, he's never showed me ever. And he's doing so well. I'm so proud of him.

Dr. Marcelle Davis: Me too.

Dionne Wynn-Criss: I'm so grateful for VCU. So grateful. They walked us through every moment, what it would be like. They anticipated the questions that we would have. They were so fantastic. And they call, they check on us. Just last week, Maureen called to check on me. She said, "Dionne, it's your one year. How are you? How is Al doing?" The fact that she remembers his name just off the cuff just touches my heart. Al, he's my hero.

Dr. Marcelle Davis: And you both are my heroes.

Scott Webb: I have to tell you, you know, I host a lot of these and I rarely get emotional. But I am so honored to have been a part of this conversation today. So proud of the work that VCU is doing and so proud of you, Dionne, you are such a hero. Your husband is a hero. It's just amazing. And I am so glad that we had this conversation.

I hope that we keep these conversations going, Dr. Davis, about DEI, diversity, equity and inclusion. I hope we can check back in with you, Dionne, every year. Get back on the line and see how Al's doing. This has been really an honor, and I just want to thank you both. Encourage all of you and Al, everybody, stay well.

Dionne Wynn-Criss: Thank you. Take care.

Scott Webb: And thank you for listening to Healthy with VCU Health. For more information on living donor transplantation, visit VCU I'm Scott Webb. Thanks for listening.