Twenty years after he retired as head administrator of the Metropolitan Police Department, Isaac Fulwood Jr. is still known around Washington D.C. as “Chief.”
These days, instead of supervising thousands of police officers, he serves as chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission. Always passionate about keeping youth out of trouble, he has mentored teenage boys and raised money for programs that offer young people paths to positive lives.
After so many years of public service, Fulwood is now in the uncomfortable position of needing some help of his own. The diabetes that he was diagnosed with 25 years ago and the hypertension from which he has suffered for 15 years have left his kidneys damaged and he needs a transplant.
So far, no match has been found among the relatives and friends who have come forward and offered to donate a kidney.
“I went into the hospital a few weeks ago and they put in a stint that will allow me to hook into a dialysis machine at home,” Fulwood told the AFRO. “I’m going to try that until I get the transplant. Going to the [dialysis] facility can take like four hours, from what I understand. People also say that you can come out of there feeling pretty much out of it. I think doing it at home will be the best way since I’m going to continue to work.”
As of July 17, there were 114,748 people in the United States awaiting transplants—92,853 of whom needed a kidney, according to statistics from the Richmond, Va.-based United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which coordinates the national organ transplant program.
Of those in need of the kidney surgery, almost 35 percent—31,609—are African Americans, the statistics show. Blacks make up almost 30 percent of those waiting for transplants overall; they are 22 percent of those in need of a pancreas-kidney transplant, 21 percent of those in need of a heart, almost 12 percent of those needing a pancreas and seven percent of those waiting for a liver, UNOS statistics show.
Experts said the biggest contributors to kidney failure are hypertension and diabetes, both of which African Americans suffer from disproportionately. “The need for kidneys among African Americans is huge,” said Anne Paschke, a spokeswoman for UNOS.
Experts said though the need is significant among minorities, African Americans often are loathe to serve as living donors or give their permission for their organs to be used after death. Dr. Clive O. Callender, founder of the National Minority Organ and Tissue Transplant Education Program (MOTTEP) and a professor of surgery at Howard University, said on the website Organdonor.gov that some people fear that physians won’t work as hard to save their lives if they have signed an organ donor card. He said others fear that a person’s body needs to be intact for their spirit to be accepted into heaven.
Fulwood was a busy deputy chief during the devastating D.C. crack epidemic 25 years ago when he began to feel poorly. He went to the D.C. Police and Fire Clinic, where tests determined that he was suffering from diabetes. He took insulin injections, reduced his carbohydrate and sugar intake, stepped up his exercise routine, began to feel better and was able to get off insulin. Ten years later, he was diagnosed with high blood pressure and placed on medication for that.
Robust at 72, Fulwood, who spent 35 years on the police department, said a routine test performed at an annual physical three years ago, not feeling ill, led doctors to perform the tests that showed that his kidneys were failing. Doctors increased his high blood pressure and diabetes medications and monitored his condition.
“Then, 18 months ago, they told me I would need a transplant,” he said. “They told me it’s a long wait and hard to get donors. They told me there is generally a five year waiting period. I just said, ‘Jesus.’ I hoped that one of my relatives would come forward and be a match. They’ve come forward, but each person who has been tested has had hypertension or some other illness that keeps them from becoming a donor.”
He still feels relatively well, but he’s concerned about the effect his illness has had on his family, including grandsons Brayden and Brent Wood, 8 and 6, respectively. Brayden offered to give him his kidney. Brent kept an especially close watch as Fulwood recovered from surgery.
“Brent came in here and I was sitting here on the couch and he said, ‘Granddaddy, how are you doing today?’ I told him I was feeling a little tired,” Fulwood said. “He said, ‘Alright then, you just sit right there and rest.’ Man, and he’s only years old.”
His wife of 50 years, Ruth, purchased exercise equipment for him to work outs. She refuses to prepare desserts and has cut as much sodium from their diets as possible. Fulwood’s only culinary splurge is a trip for ice cream every few months.
“You become very sensitive to how he is doing,” Ruth Fulwood said. “You pay attention to the fact that his energy level is not there. He gets tired, so he can’t always do the things he wants to do, like spend as much time with the grandkids as he did before. It affects your leisure time more than anything else. He gets up every day and goes to work, but after work and on weekends he can’t do what he once did.”
As he prepares to begin dialysis, Fulwood ponders his mortality, things he still wants to do and his legacy.
“My theory about life is that you should give back and help others. I’ve tried to live my life that way,” he said. “My pastor, Grainger Browning [Jr., of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington] talks about that all the time, that we have an obligation to do something for others.”
Fulwood said he prays that someone will remember the way he has lived and come forward to save his life now.
“It’s difficult to talk about needing somebody to help you,” he said. “But I would hope that people would look at what I’ve attempted to do and say, ‘Hey, maybe now we ought to try to help him.’”
For information about kidney disease or becoming an organ donor contact Nationalmottep.org or Unos.org.