Two-year-old A.J. was born without kidneys. In desperate need of a transplant, A.J.’s family was grateful that a willing donor had been so easy to find. It had actually worked out perfectly, the child’s own father was a perfect match and was more than prepared to give one of his kidneys to his son.
"That's all I ever wanted — was a son. And I finally got him, and he's in this situation," Anthony Dickerson said of young A.J.
The transplant surgery was scheduled for September 29th at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Everything was on track in the weeks preceding the surgery, until the justice system got involved. Now, A.J. is being denied the kidney he needs because his father violated his parole.
Emory has a real opportunity to send a message to our broken criminal justice system. But instead, it has committed itself to perpetuating the status quo.
Carmella Burgess was thrilled at the prospect of her son finally getting to live a normal life. After two years, A.J.’s struggles would soon be lessened. When she received the news that her son’s father was going to be prohibited from donating his kidney, she was absolutely devastated.
"Two steps closer to giving him a kidney and we got shut down, basically," Burgess said.
Dickerson violated his parole a few weeks prior to the scheduled surgery when he was charged with possession of a firearm or knife. However, it is still unclear which weapon was actually found on his person. This resulted in his arrest, which unfortunately made him unavailable for his surgical appointment.
Initially, the hospital seemed to understand and was even willing to make accommodations for law enforcement to bring Dickerson to the hospital. Emory officials stated in a letter:
Mr. Dickerson is currently in custody for a parole violation. If Mr. Dickerson could be escorted to Emory for blood work and a pre-operative appointment tomorrow, September 29, we will be able to continue with the scheduled surgery."
It is natural to assume that a life-altering surgery would trump the government’s need to lock up a father for a parole violation. But that is not what happened. Not only was Dickerson unable to attend his appointment, but after he was released he faced further obstacles from the hospital.
In the days following his release, he received a letter from Emory Hospital saying:
The Living Donor Transplant Team at Emory has asked Mr. Dickerson for evidence of compliance from his parole officer for the next three months. We will re-evaluate Mr. Dickerson in January 2018 after receipt of his completed documentation."
To be perfectly clear, Emory is a private facility, at least on paper. This allows the facility to set its own standards regarding these issues. But the health care system and the government are so intertwined, it is difficult to see where one’s interests begin and the other’s ends.
Our criminal justice system makes it extremely difficult to ever fully escape its grasp.
And since it is still technically a private entity, the hospital and specifically the team responsible for transplants has a real opportunity to send a message to our broken criminal justice system. Unfortunately, at this time, it has committed itself to perpetuating the status quo.
Propping up a Broken System
Our criminal justice system makes it extremely difficult to ever fully escape its grasp. A prison sentence does not simply end as soon as an inmate is released from incarceration. In some capacity, a former inmate’s record and their experience will follow them around for the rest of their lives. It will impact their ability to secure a job and even housing. And, as in the case of Dickerson, it can also prevent someone from donating an organ that may save someone’s life.
The probability of former inmates falling prey to recidivism is also regrettably high. But a lot of this is by design. These individuals have spent time isolated from society and then are thrown back into the real world without a lifeline. If they have a minor mishap or are unable to secure housing and employment, they find themselves back behind bars. This applies to a wide range of offenders, but since our prison system is currently overwhelmed by nonviolent offenders, it is a common occurrence amongst those without any history of violence, like Dickerson.
In Dickerson’s case, his original arrest came after he was charged, and then convicted, of theft and forgery. But neither had acts of violence associated with them. And yet, this man was thrown in jail and denied the ability to save his own son’s life because of a parole violation.
But as infuriated as this may make one feel towards our justice system, Emory had the chance to right this wrong and has instead made the situation far worse.
Sure, it may only seem like a few extra months of waiting to those on the Living Donor Transplant Team. But for young A.J., each moment that his surgery is delayed has potentially catastrophic consequences. He does not have the luxury of waiting several months for this procedure. And, to put it bluntly, there is no reason he should have to wait when a willing donor is readily available.
A hospital's primary goal should be to provide care to those in need regardless of their past.
It was Dickerson, not his son, who was the one found in violation of parole. And yet, the hospital is penalizing a two-year-old for the sins of his father. Additionally, since there are no drug or alcohol issues associated with Dickerson’s parole violation, there is no reason that he should be denied the ability to help his ailing son. Dickerson is healthy and physically able to donate his kidney, and that should be all that matters.
Commenting on this devastating situation, Dickerson said of his son, "What does he got to do with the mistakes I made? Nothing.” A.J.’s mother added, "He's only two. He don't deserve this. We've been waiting so long for this."
Stranger Than Fiction
This story seems almost too absurd to believe. Especially since a hospital's primary goal should be to provide care to those in need regardless of their past. There is no one more deserving of this care than an innocent two-year-old whose only prerogative is to lead a normal, healthy life.
When a local Atlanta news outlet reached out to Emory for clarification on the situation, it responded that it could not divulge personal information about its patients due to privacy laws. However, it did release a statement saying:
"Guidelines for organ transplantation are designed to maximize the chance of success for organ recipients and minimize the risk for living donors
This sounds like a typical canned statement that is thrown to the press whenever questions regarding transplants arise, and it gives absolutely no clarification as to why Dickerson is being prohibited from helping his own flesh and blood. A criminal record should not preclude a father from donating an organ, or any willing, healthy donor for that matter.
When the local news outlet pressed further and asked a general question about arrests and criminal records impacting the ability to donate an organ, they received no response.
To make matters much worse for the family, A.J.’s health has already been in decline. Just two months ago he suffered a stroke, which has left him in need of constant care. This has not only presented a burden to the young child, but also to the family who feels completely powerless in this situation.
With Dickerson currently unable to donate this vital organ, A.J.’s only option is to add his name to kidney transplant waitlist. But this will not be a quick fix. In fact, many people wait years for a match, if one is even found at all.
"They're making this about Dad. It's about our 2-year-old son," Burgess said, really driving the point home.