Bobby Howard, recipient of a deceased-donor kidney, Atlanta, Ga.
Retiring as a professional football player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1990, Bobby Howard was the picture of health as a strong athlete in a tough sport.
That all changed in August, 1993, during a visit to see his niece in Atlanta. "At that time, my niece was on dialysis that was caused by Lupus." Howard experienced a severe headache that Tylenol couldn't relieve. His sister-in-law tested his blood pressure and it was extremely high. Howard went to the emergency room and underwent a battery of tests that revealed kidney failure. "I knew what kidney failure meant as my mother had a kidney transplant in 1976, and passed away less than two years later," Howard said, "but I was young at the time and didn't know the details of her illness."
The doctors made the hurtful assumption that the kidney failure may have been due to steroid use, as Howard was a former professional football player. An evaluation of Howard's medical records proved their claim to be false, and high blood pressure turned out to be the cause. "Doctors concluded that I had kept the high blood pressure under control as an athlete, so when I retired, the high blood pressure got out of control and caused my kidneys to fail," said Howard.
Howard's life changed dramatically. He relocated to Atlanta, from Tampa, to be near his family while he began dialysis and waited for his kidney transplant. "It was an extremely tough transition from being independent to being dependent. And the one thing that was comforting to me at this time was going through dialysis with my niece," said Howard. Sadly, his niece passed away at the age of 21, in 1998, of complications caused by Lupus.
According to Howard, dialysis was both a curse and a blessing. "Before dialysis, I was vain about my football-body, and it got in the way of the important things in life. I lost my parents at a young age, and I didn't have the luxurious lifestyle until I played football. Being on dialysis put me back in touch with reality -- the reality that Bobby Howard is no better than the next human being, and the next human being is no better than Bobby Howard," he said.
Howard turned a trying experience into a positive one. He became active in his dialysis clinic and even learned how to put himself on the machine for treatment. One day his dialysis technician called saying that he would have to return for an additional two hours of dialysis since the machine wasn't running correctly. That same day, his technician made a prophetic statement. "'You are going to get your transplant,' she said 'because you are the only patient I have ever had that is concerned about everyone else and making sure that everyone is treated fairly.' And she was right. That afternoon, the transplant coordinator called with bad news and good news. The bad news was that my brother wasn't a good match to be my living donor. The good news was that they found a kidney for me," Howard said.
His successful kidney transplant took place on October 25, 1994 at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. "I started crying in the recovery room as it dawned on me that someone had to die for me to have a second chance. I prayed to get a kidney, but never thought I was praying for someone to die. I really struggled with that fact," said Howard. "It dawned on me that I would never have the chance to repay this person, and I wanted to give back and help others in my second chance."
That chance came when LifeLink of Georgia, the local organ procurement organization (OPO), asked him to interview with a local newspaper to raise awareness in the African-American community. "LifeLink had a position open, and the next day, I received a call from them asking for my resume," said Howard. It was his first interview outside of football. LifeLink hired Howard as an education specialist for its Minority Donation Education Program (now, the Multicultural Program) in 1995. Howard has held various roles with the OPO since then, and is now responsible for educating the African-American community on the importance of organ and tissue donation.
Relying on his experience as an education specialist, Howard presented, "Increasing consent in the African-American Community," at a HRSA-DOT Organ OPO Redesign event.
"I am so proud of the way the community has reacted to me," said Howard. "I truly believe the organ donors come from the community. The family still has to say 'yes' (in Georgia), and if the family doesn't have that educational piece, you will continue to get 'no,' despite all the work you've done with the hospitals and with letting people know the options available. Here in Georgia, we've been very successful, because we have a strong community outreach piece to go along with our hospital development, and the work we've done with the Collaborative," said Howard. "My passion is very strong. It's more than just a job to me; it's personal."