By Reg Green —
Although Charlette Thompson has looked after cardiac patients in intensive care units in Lexington, Kentucky, hospitals since the 1980s, she has never become accustomed to sudden death. After all these years there is shock in her voice when she describes it. “They’d be looking at you, talking to you, and the next second, the very next second, they’d be gone.”
Charlette went into the ICU by choice. “I wanted to take care of the sickest patients,” she says. “But seeing so many deaths made me want to do more than keeping the dying comfortable.”
About that time, Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA) was looking for nurses, and especially African-American nurses like Charlette, to do voluntary work outside their normal jobs to help raise donation rates in a region where, even by the standards of the time, they were very low.
“I could see how difficult it was,” she says. “Most people at that time, black or white, knew almost nothing about organ donation and most of those who did know something were afraid of it. Some thought they needed all their body parts intact when they went to heaven. Many said, “If I sign my license they won’t even try to save me.”
“Often someone would say to me, ‘There’s no point in doing it. It doesn’t work anyway.’ Black people mistrusted the whole thing. ‘All those organs go to the whites,’ they’d say. And they’d add: ‘My church is against it.'”
A devout churchgoer all her life, she knew that wasn’t so and decided to hit the problem head on. “The only way to reach black people in large numbers was through the churches,” she says. She began contacting pastors all over the area and asking them to give her just 10 minutes to talk. She set out to dispel the myths surrounding transplantation.
“When I first went in, I’d ask how many people knew anything about it,” she says. “Always it was almost zero. And when I asked who was in favor, it was the same. So I’d talk about how so many black people were dying because of the shortage of organs. I’d tell them that their church was for it. I’d talk to them about people I knew who were alive because of a transplant. In just that few minutes, people were nodding their heads and, at the end, when I’d ask, almost all would say they agreed.”
But she knew a lot of work was needed if this was to be more than good intentions. She encouraged KODA to train more minority requestors, spoke at forums, worked on literature for minorities and helped set up the African-American Task Force on Organ Donation to create awareness of the donor shortage.
In 1995 she contacted Dr. Clive Callender, one of the few African-American transplant surgeons in the United States, and asked him to talk at the biggest church in the area, Shiloh Baptist Church. His visit was electrifying. “People came away saying, ‘Transplants do work and they do help blacks,'” Charlette says. “And to hear it from a famous surgeon who did these operations and was black himself, that blew their minds.”
She was often asked as a volunteer to approach families who had just lost someone to see if they would donate. “When I’d go into a hospital where an extended family had gathered it was often noisy, sometimes chaotic. With all those people there it was hard to come to an agreement. Often they were angry with me. ‘Why are you coming at this time?’ some of them would ask, not knowing that it had to be done then or not at all.”
“Often it was young people who’d been killed in a car accident or maybe there’d been a shooting. I’d say ‘Before we do anything, let’s pray.’ I wanted to calm everyone down. Then perhaps I’d ask, ‘What sort of a person was he? Was he a giving person?’ Often they’d say, ‘Oh, yes, yes, that’s just what he was like. He was always helping others.’ And right then, without me saying another word, they’d see that he could still give. Sometimes I’d ask them if they’d like to sing a hymn and we’d sing quietly among ourselves before we ever talked about donation.”
“Sometimes just one voice would have everyone in doubt. I’d try to find the strongest ones in the family and I’d make a point of making sure they understood. From then on they would often take over from me. You could never be sure. You might go in there, thinking it was the older family members who’d be against it, but sometimes it was the grandmother who made everyone see it was the right thing to do.”
Of all the letters sent to Charlette by people who decided to donate, she says there has never been a negative one. “Even those family members who were doubtful at the time, when they hear of the joy they have brought to the family who got the organs, they say, ‘Now I’m sure — that’s what he would have wanted.'” A colleague who watched her in these situations explains her successes succinctly: “She puts everyone at ease.”
Then, seven years ago, in her early 40s, her active life hit a barrier. She developed a brain tumor and, after two operations, lost 90 percent of her vision. She had to give up nursing. She could read only by closing one eye and using a powerful magnifying glass. It tore at her that she had all that knowledge and experience and yet was unable to help. “I gave a few speeches and went to meetings from time to time. But it wasn’t enough.”
Then one day, calling on her faith, she began to write a musical play. “I’ve been a gospel singer all my life and I had a group called Charlette’s Web, but I’d never done anything like this before.” Slowly and painfully, supported by her husband, Richard, and two grown daughters, she wrote “Be Careful of the Stones You Throw,” about two friends, African-American girls, one of whom needs a transplant. It was shown first to a full house at the Opera House in Lexington and then at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
“It made converts all over the area,” Jenny Miller Jones, director of education at KODA, reports. “It was typical of her that, finding it impossible to save lives one way, she found another.”
But then her own life became easier, too. To her great joy, her sight has improved so much that she can drive again. And, fulfilling a long-held wish, she has become an ordained minister.
Reg Green is the father of Nicholas Green, a seven-year-old California boy who was shot in Italy in a botched robbery in 1994. The decision by Reg and his wife, Maggie, to donate his organs and corneas led to a worldwide increase in awareness of the shortage of donors. Reg can be reached through his family’s website, http://www.nicholasgreen.org/.Tags: grief, hope