UPDATE: Despite the cancellation of his father’s donation due to parole violation, A.J. Burgess received a kidney transplant from a deceased donor in November 2017. He is now a happy and thriving three-year-old boy whose life is celebrated by friends and family.
Beyond incarceration, criminal offenses often have other unfortunate ramifications, in areas like employment or eligibility for publicly-assisted housing or other government benefits. A father in Georgia recently discovered his parole violation could cause months-long delay in serving as an organ donor for his critically ill son.
In January 2015, A.J. Burgess was born a month premature, without functioning kidneys. The child stayed in intensive care for his first ten months, and at age two weighed just 25 pounds and could not walk. To survive, he urgently needed a kidney transplant. His father, Anthony Dickerson, agreed to donate a kidney to his son. The surgery was scheduled for October 3, 2017, at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
But Dickerson, now in his upper 20s, while a willing volunteer and a perfect match, has a criminal history going back to 2011, with multiple misdemeanor theft convictions and a first-degree forgery charge. And in September, shortly before he was scheduled for a nine-part medical evaluation before having donor surgery, he was arrested on a weapons charge, which violated the terms of his parole from a previous charge. As a result, he was in a county jail on September 29, when the pre-operation evaluation was scheduled, which he wound up taking in the lock-up.
He was released on bail on October 2, a day before his donor surgery was scheduled, but the parents were turned away at the hospital door. They then learned the hospital a few days earlier had written the boy’s mother, Carmellia Burgess, to inform her, with little explanation, that Dickerson’s donor surgery was being canceled. Since A.J. needed dialysis daily and had numerous related health problems, delay in obtaining a donor might amount to a death sentence for him.
The hospital’s letter said Dickerson’s eligibility to donate a kidney to his son would be re-evaluated “in January 2018,” after it received evidence of his compliance with his probation and parole requirements. When the story of a critically ill two-year-old denied a needed transplant, with a willing organ donor turned away due to a seemingly unrelated criminal issue gained publicity, the hospital refused to spell out its rationale, citing laws on patient privacy. All it would say is that its decisions on donors were “based on many medical, social, and psychological factors,” and its transplant guidelines aimed to maximize chances for success and minimize risk to donors.
A.J. was hospitalized again a few weeks after the denial, and a groundswell of opposition began to grow. Activists at Emory University staged protests, and A.J.’s mother and supporters launched petition drives and fundraising campaigns. A Change.org petition even gained over 170,000 supporters before closing down. The CEO of Emory Healthcare soon met with A.J.’s parents, and the hospital system apologized for a communication breakdown, and said it would work to find a solution for the child’s urgent medical needs.
The story does have an upbeat ending: the day before Thanksgiving, the hospital notified the family a kidney had become available from a deceased donor. The transplant operation, performed the same day, was successful. The issue of whether a parole violation ought to disqualify an otherwise eligible organ donor remains to be resolved another day, however.