One minute Oliver Hale was on top of the world, the next he was flat on his back.
Hale, a Kentwood resident, had just won his first United States Tennis Association tournament in 1983 and was looking forward to more victories. Two weeks later, he was in the hospital with renal failure – even though he hadn’t previously experienced any symptoms.
“I didn’t take care of myself very well for two years and then: bang,” he said. “I was playing tennis all the time, running around for four hours, two or three times a week – you’d think I was healthy, but I wasn’t.”
Hale was on dialysis for two years before he received his first kidney transplant in 1985. He was 38 at the time.
He has since dedicated his life to helping people lead healthier lives. Through his long-time cooking show in the Grand Rapids area – Hale produced 315 “Chef O’s Place” shows over 11 years – and advocacy in the community, Hale said he worked hard to reach people of color.
“It’s my main goal to work closely with minorities and try to get them to understand they need to stay healthy before and after the transplant, and try to stay off of dialysis,” he said.
It’s an important group to reach. More than half the men, women and children waiting for a life-saving organ transplant are people of color, yet people in multi-cultural communities are more reluctant to sign up as donors. There are more than 100,000 people waiting for a new life-saving organ in the U.S. and more than 60% of them represent racial and ethnic minorities. In Michigan, there are about 2,500 people waiting for a new organ; of those about half are of African American, Latinx or Arab American descent.
August is National Minority Donor Awareness Month, which seeks to change those statistics by promoting the need for multicultural people to sign up on the Organ donor Registry, educating the public about the benefits of donation and celebrating the stories of donors, donor families and transplant recipients.
Hale is a living example of the benefits of organ and tissue donation. He has remained active and competitive, despite the need for a second transplant 25 years after his first. He’s represented Team Michigan and Team USA in the annual Transplant Games from 1987-2007 and from 2012-2021 – he had his second transplant in 2012 – and earned 34 medals, 19 of them gold.
He’s been honored as best chef in Grand Rapids twice and earned an American Culinary Arts Award. He’s served as an ambassador for the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) and the National Kidney Foundation, as well as Gift of Life Michigan. He’s spoken about his transplant journey at high schools, church functions and in the media.
Now 68, Hale said he’s still as committed to helping people as he ever was.
“I was told by my dad when I was young, he said: ‘If you ever get successful and you go forward, stop and pull somebody else with you. Just pass it on.’ That’s what I feel like I do when I go and speak, when I do demonstrations, when I do appearances,” Hale said. “I feel like I’m touching someone out there and changing their way of eating or their life. I’m motivating them to be a better person.”