Buddhist organization pushes for more Asian American organ donors

By J.D. Velasco, Whittier Daily News, Apr 24, 2011

Whittier, CA (USA) -- Robert Chen is a changed man. In his younger days, when he ran a nightclub, he said he drank heavily, went to lots of parties, and, as a self-described "Mr. Cheeseburger," his diet was far from healthy.

Then came high blood pressure, kidney disease and eventually four years of dialysis treatments.

In 1998, Chen was approved for a kidney transplant and everything began to change for him. He left the nightclub business and works as an insurance agent in Walnut. He said he now prefers vegetables over greasier fare and has dropped 20 pounds from his frame.

"It's like I'm born again," he said. "The kidney made me a new man."

But it's not just the new kidney that's made a difference in his life, Chen said. His personal reformation has been inspired by the tenets of Tzu Chi, an international Buddhist humanitarian aid organization.

"The teaching of the foundation has been keeping me to live a healthier life," he said.

He also now volunteers his time as an ambassador for OneLegacy, an organ transplant network serving Southern California that works with Tzu Chi. And he's just the kind of person they've been looking for.

That's because while Asian Americans make up about 17 percent of those on organ transplant waiting lists in California, only about 8 percent of organs donated in 2010 came from Asian Americans, according to data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

And since it's more difficult to find donor-recipient matches between people of dissimilar races, the wait time to receive an organ can be especially long for Asian Americans.

Facing those odds, many immigrants from Asian countries have opted to return home for transplant surgeries, said Debra Boudreaux, CEO of the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation.

So last month Tzu Chi and the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, an umbrella group for networks such as OneLegacy, announced that they were joining forces to provide educational outreach services to Asian-American communities.

Tzu Chi has been working with OneLegacy for about a decade. This agreement will allow it to establish similar relationships with organ donation networks across the country.

"We just saw it as a chance to extend this relationship into other markets, especially with the Asian population growing in the United States," said Bryan Stewart, vice president of communications for OneLegacy.

It is hoped that Tzu Chi will be able to counter the biases some Asian Americans hold against organ donation and increase donor registration in their communities.

John Z. Ding, professor of philosophy specializing in Asian studies at Cal Poly Pomona, said those biases may have their roots in certain beliefs about death found in Asian cultures.

Ding said it's a fairly common belief among the Chinese and Vietnamese that a person's body should be whole when they die.

"If your body is not complete, that means your soul is not complete," he said. "Your next life could be kind of troubled."

To hedge against that possibility, family members following traditional practices might go as far as crafting a wooden replacement hand for a person who was missing one of his when he died, he said.

Missing organs could be equally problematic for someone holding such beliefs.

Boudreaux agreed that those beliefs do present a hurdle, but said 10 years of working with the Asian-American communities of Southern California is beginning to have an effect.

"That kind of mentality and attitude is changing step by step," she said.

When informed of a patient who is brain-dead or on the verge of death, Tzu Chi volunteers are sometimes on the scene in 30 minutes to discuss the benefits of organ donation to family members, said Boudreaux.

"We don't make the decision for them, we inform them," she said. "(By donating), his or her spirit is with you all the time. It's a very strong concept."

Melissa Choi, a Cal State Fullerton student who lives in Rowland Heights, said her family was asked to donate her father's organs when he had a stroke seven years ago. They gave up his kidneys and liver.

"We said `yeah, it would be really great if we could do that,"' she said. "He donated three organs and saved three people."

Like Chen, the kidney recipient, Choi was touched by the experience and now volunteers her time for the organ-donation cause.

"I feel really grateful for the services that they provided," she said. "I thought I could give back by advocating for organ donation."

Chen said he hopes that people of all ethnicities will keep their minds open to donating an organ.

"They don't know how appreciative the other party will be," he said. "It will change the other person's life permanently, and not only that person, it will affect the whole family."