Thursday, May 19, 2011


What a wonderful article in the New York Times, this past Tuesday, May 17.  The Science Times section brought a story about Julio and Mirtala Garcia. The couple, naturalized Americans originally from Guatemala, saved the lives of seven people and restored the vision of an eighth. Theoretically speaking, instead of 110,000 people waiting for organs in the United States, there are now 103,000.

Mr. Garcia was at his plumbing job one day, when he felt ill. He was suffering from one of his much too frequent migraine headaches. This one was different than the others, because besides being in terrible pain, he also felt numb all over. He called his wife and asked her to come pick him up. Mrs. Garcia wanted to call an ambulance. Her husband, Julio, thought it unnecessary. They drove to the hospital where doctors diagnosed Julio with massive brain hemorrhaging. They were able to stabilize him; then they had him transported to another hospital better equipped to deal with his problem. By the time the ambulance dropped him off at the new facility, he was in a coma. A few hours later, and several attempts to drain the blood from his brain, he was declared brain dead. After the obligatory verification from two independent doctors, Mirtala was given the news. In this profound moment of grief, a hospital official asked her if she would donate his organs.

At first Mirtala hoped Julio would awake. But the doctor explained that this wasn’t possible because, essentially, he had already passed away. Machines were keeping his organs oxygenated. The next day, once again, she was asked if she would donate his organs. Julio had been a deeply religious man. He was the pastor at his church. Mirtala thought of her two friends from church suffering from kidney failure, and whose time was running out.

And she thought about the comments her husband had made after watching the movie Seven Pounds, starring Will Smith and Rosario Dawson. In the movie, Will Smith plays a man (Ben Thomas) filled with remorse for what he had done. He drove and was on his cell phone when he caused an accident that killed six people in a van and his passenger. Ben decides to ‘give back’ by donating his organs and thus saving seven people, the same number of lives he had taken. Personally, I don’t go for movies full of transplant flaws. You can’t transplant eyes (only cornea), and you can’t take organs from a dead man, even if he’s lying in a tub of ice water, waiting for his pet jellyfish to sting him (Helloooo!!). I don’t know how many times Hollywood has gotten this wrong, and will continue to do so as long as it makes for good drama, and, more importantly, good box office (the movie made 168 million worldwide. It cost 55 million to make. In Hollywood terms, including P&A coast, I’d say it barely broke even.) But I digress.

After seeing this movie, Julio had told his wife that he’d be happy to give life after his death. He said that if anyone got his heart, she should meet the recipient. Recalling that conversation, Mirtala knew she had to donate Julio’s organs. The article went on to say that she met five of the seven recipients: the heart, lung, two kidney and adult partial liver recipients. One, the pancreas recipient, chose to remain anonymous, the other, a one-year-old baby who received a portion of Julio’s liver, well, it’s pretty obvious. The cornea recipient was never at death’s doorstep and doesn’t count among the 103,000 remaining on the organ transplant waiting list.

The five recipients and Mirtala met at the New York headquarters of the liver distribution center. Such a gathering had never happened before. Perhaps one donor a year gets to meet his/her recipient. For five of them to come together with their single donor is highly unusual, as is one donor giving seven of his organs.  

I found this story quite touching for several reasons. A Guatemalan man who could barely speak English (Mirtala spoke through a translator) donated his organs to save American lives. This alone is praiseworthy. As much as we would like to think of ourselves as ‘color blind,’ there’s still plenty of racism in the United States. Does race affect organ donation? This is a question I can’t answer, but it is something to think about.
If all donors gave up to seven organs, perhaps the list would shrink a little. Why the average organ donation is only three I don’t know, but it’s something to think about.

I commend Mirtala Garcia for quickly deciding to donate. Her husband passed on Thursday, by Friday she had made up her mind. When you’ve just lost your loved one, it can’t be easy to think rationally. Time is of the essence when it comes to donors and recipients.

Let me end this story the way I began it. For a moment, there were 103,000 people on the waiting list thanks to Julio and Mirtala Garcia. By the time I finish this post, or probably even before, the number will have jumped right back where it was to 110,000. I wish no one the tragedy Mirtala and thousands of others experience when a loved one passes of brain death. Optimist that I am, the upside of such a death is giving life to others. We recipients welcome many, many more Mirtala Garcias.