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Black History Month, Act II

Updated: Feb 23

Black and African-Americans are at an increased risk for developing kidney disease. In honor of #BlackHistoryMonth we're featuring some of the patients, trailblazers, and visionaries who are helping to pave the way to better kidney health for all Black and African Americans.

Jacqueline Burgess-Bishop, FACHE is the first Black CEO of NKFI. A Chicago native and proud Northwestern graduate, Jackie's career in healthcare administration and passion for increasing access to care prepared her well for leading NKFI into the future. Kidney health is personal for her, too. Her maternal grandmother Abby passed away due to kidney failure before Jackie was born. Hear more of her story here.

In 2015, Philly-based rapper Freeway felt sick and run down. Weeks passed before he realized his body was trying to tell him something important. Unbeknownst to him, he had three significant risk factors that increased his susceptibility for developing kidney disease: he's African-American, had hypertension, and diabetes. He eventually experienced kidney failure and spent three years waiting for his life-saving kidney transplant - an experience he wrote about on his album "Free Will." Now Freeway is a passionate advocate for kidney disease awareness and is an official ambassador for the National Kidney Foundation.

Dr. Kareen Simpson, MD, is a highly experienced specialist in nephrology and hypertension, practicing in Chicago, IL. Dr. Simpson practices with Associates in Nephrology and is a member of the NKFI Board of Directors. She's used her expertise to share information about kidney health and disease prevention at community health talks and free educational events.

Dr. Pierre Renaud Blemur Jr, MD is a seasoned nephrologist at Northwestern Medicine. He's a graduate of Temple University School of Medicine. He's spent some of his free time educating the public on kidney health and prevention.

The iconic Queen of Rock 'n Roll Tina Turner was diagnosed with uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure) in 1978. Unfortunately, like many, she didn't initially take it seriously. In 2009, a stroke revealed that her high blood pressure had affected her kidney function. Despite challenges with medication, she underwent dialysis for 9 months. In 2017, her husband Erwin became her living donor.

Dr. Ashley Suah is a transplant surgeon at UChicago Medicine. In addition to performing life-saving surgeries, she's an advocate for her patients, dedicated to making access to transplant equitable for all - including pushing for equality in gender and racial disparities in transplant.

Former Buffalo Bills receiver Donald Jones retired from the NFL at the age of 25 in August 2013 due to his struggle with IgA nephropathy, which began during his sophomore year of high school. In December 2013, Jones underwent a life-saving kidney transplant from his father. Since then, he has been touring the country to raise awareness and funds for IgA nephropathy. He wrote a book about his experiences entitled, "The Next Quarter: Scoring Against Kidney Disease."

Dr. Jaime Baylock is a nephrologist practicing in the south suburbs of Chicago who found the statistics for kidney disease in African Americans startling. “Kidney disease is something that disproportionately affects African-Americans, in particular young people. I wanted to be a representative and have a role in trying to prevent people from having progressive kidney disease and to be able to help identify that early on to prevent progression to end stage kidney disease." She decided to pursue kidney health while in medical school and understands the importance of increased representation in nephrology, “It’s super important because patients don’t necessarily trust doctors of other races, and sometimes you can connect with your patients a little bit better. We all have our cultural traditions, and if you can relate with your patients and connect with them just based on that commonality, you may be able to get through to them a little better and help them to abide by your recommendations. We have to increase the representation of African-American physicians period,” she said. “The process starts early on in elementary school, high school, allowing our children to know this is something they can do.”

Dr. Clive O. Callender is a legendary Howard University transplant surgeon. In the early 1970s, Dr. Callender began developing the first minority-directed dialysis and transplant center in the country at Howard University Hospital. In 1991, Dr. Callender conceptualized and founded the National Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program (MOTTEP) for the purpose of increasing minority donation rates nationally. The organization has been widely heralded for its public awareness campaigns directed at minority communities. “One of things I learned early on [in my career] was that there was a shortage of donors and a complexity in this shortage of donors, and that minorities and African-Americans were rarely donors,” Callender said. “This then became the quest for me because I had a rich experience as a church person, and I thought that this was something I should try to do. Yes, it was an impossible dream. But then, in my life, the impossible often became possible. So, this became the challenge that I took up.”

Actor Grizz Chapman was diagnosed with high blood pressure which damaged his kidneys. When he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, his kidneys failed. He underwent dialysis treatments three time per week while filming 30 Rock (with co-star Tracy Morgan who would later go on to experience kidney failure as well!) He lost over 160 pounds and underwent a kidney transplant in 2010. He was a spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation where he urged others to keep their blood pressure under control and get screened regularly, in addition to prioritizing diet and exercise.

Dr. Susanne Nichols, MD, MPH, PhD is a professor and physician specializing in hypertension and nephrology at UCLA where she is the chair of the Nephrology Racial Health Equity Committee. She's served as the President of the Medical Advisory Executive Committee for her local NKF office and been awarded the NKF Medical Advisory Board Distinguished Service Award. She's also received the Minority Access, Inc. National Role Model Faculty Researcher Award.

Sean Elliott is a game-winning NBA star and kidney transplant recipient who raises awareness about kidney disease. He was the first player to return to the NBA after a kidney transplant. After the 1992-93 NBA season, Sean said he found himself feeling off. At just 25 years old, he blamed it on depression after losing to the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Playoffs. “I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks—I was very lethargic, I had started retaining all this water,” Sean said. “It finally came to a head when I woke up one morning and had trouble opening my eyes because my face was so swollen.” He was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerular sclerosis (FSGS). He says he'd experienced symptoms for years prior (namely, high blood pressure) that were explained away during routine doctors' visits. For years after his diagnosis, he continued to play basketball and live his life. Shortly after leading the San Antonio Spurs to their first NBA title in 1999, he learned that his disease had worsened and he'd need a transplant. His brother Noel was a match and stepped up to be his living donor. He'll be 25 years kidney strong this year.

Dr. Deidra Candice Crews is a professor of medicine in the nephrology division at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her research program aims to advance equity in kidney disease and hypertension outcomes by focusing on social drivers of health inequities. She is also the founding director of the Doctoral Diversity Program, a 2-year, research-intensive program at the Johns Hopkins Initiative for Careers in Science and Medicine.

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