Organ donor’s gifts spread far and wide
Mirtala Garcia laid a hand on Sebastiano Laurenco’s chest, then pressed her ear there for a moment.
“That’s my heart,” she said. “It’s still beating for me.”
Although she had just met Laurenco, she had known his heart for a long time. It had belonged to her husband, Julio, who died from a brain hemorrhage in March 2010, at the age of 38. Garcia donated her husband’s organs, and the family’s loss led to a second chance for Laurenco, 57.
But he was not the only one. Seven or eight other people who urgently needed transplants also received organs from Julio Garcia, an unusually large number. (The average from organ donors is about three.) Even more unusual, his family and a group of recipients met recently in a highly emotional gathering at the Manhattan headquarters of the New York Organ Donor Network, which coordinated the transplants.
The story of the Garcias and the people whose lives were saved by one man’s donated organs provides a close look at the charged world of transplants and organ donation, where people on the transplant list know they may die waiting, and the families of brain-dead patients are asked, at perhaps the most painful time in their lives, to look beyond their own grief and allow a loved one’s organs to be removed to help strangers.
There are nowhere near enough donor organs for all the people who need transplants. Nearly 111,000 are on waiting lists in the United States, but last year, only 28,663 transplants were performed, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the transplant system nationwide. This year, 6,000 to 7,000 people are expected to die waiting.
This month, Garcia and her children, 5, 11 and 18, who all live in Stamford, Conn., met four of the recipients of her husband’s organs for the first time. A fifth recipient also attended, one of two people with renal failure, both members of the Garcias’ church, whom Mirtala Garcia had chosen to receive the kidneys.
Garcia addressed a room packed with recipients, families, doctors, nurses, her minister and his family and network employees. She spoke briefly through an interpreter. She said her husband had had a big heart and would be very proud “to give life after death.” No one would ever forget him, she said.
Elaine Berg, president of the donor network, said: “These meetings don’t happen that frequently. I’ve been here 11 years, and if it’s once a year that’s a lot. I’ve never met five recipients from one donor. It’s highly unusual.”
In many cases recipients or donor families, or both, choose to remain anonymous, Berg said. Recipients may send thank-you letters through the network, but they and donors do not often choose to meet.
“It’s pretty intimidating and pretty emotional,” Berg said. “Some people cannot bear it.”
But she said that meeting the recipients can bring solace to donor families.
Young and strong
Julio Garcia was so young and strong that his corneas and six organs were healthy enough to transplant: his heart, one lung, his pancreas, both kidneys and his liver, which was divided to save two people, an adult and a child.
In photographs, Julio Garcia was handsome, with a mischievous smile. His wife said he loved to joke and laugh. But he was also deeply religious, and as a pastor at their evangelical church in Stamford he did a lot of preaching and marriage counseling. He earned his living as a carpenter. Both he and his wife, originally from Guatemala, became naturalized citizens.
For many years, he had suffered periodically from severe headaches, but he had been told they were migraines. The headaches were unusually bad the week or so before March 17, 2010, a Wednesday. That day, his head hurting, he told his children he loved them and went to work.
He called his wife that afternoon, saying the pain was terrible and he was going numb all over. She wanted to call an ambulance, but he asked her to pick him up instead. She drove him to a hospital in Stamford. A major hemorrhage and swelling were putting pressure on his brain. Doctors tried to relieve the pressure, and then transferred him to New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital in Manhattan.
By the time he arrived there on Wednesday night, he was in a deep coma, needed a ventilator to breathe and had extremely low blood pressure — all signs of a large hemorrhage affecting the brain stem, according to Dr. Axel Rosengart, the director of neurocritical care. Doctors stabilized him and tried again to reduce the pressure on his brain, but scans showed extensive, irreversible damage, Rosengart said.
Rosengart said he suspected the bleeding was caused by an arteriovenous malformation, a blood-vessel abnormality that Julio Garcia may have had from birth.
By Thursday, Rosengart said, he began to warn the family that Julio Garcia was heading toward brain death. Later that day, the diagnosis was made twice, by two different physicians, in accord with state law. A patient with brain death is legally dead.
At first, Mirtala Garcia recalled, she could not accept the diagnosis of brain death. The next day, Friday, it became clear to her that her husband would not recover.
Mirtala Garcia said she thought about how important it had been to her husband to help other people.
She recalled a movie they had watched about a man who donates organs. Julio Garcia had said that it would be a great thing to save lives, and that if anyone ever got his heart, he hoped she would meet that person.
She talked to relatives and her minister. Finally, Mirtala Garcia thought of her friend Milvia Palma, who needed a kidney transplant.
On Friday night, Mirtala Garcia signed the consent forms, and the donor network went into action.
Patients at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital were eligible for the heart, liver and lung; a 1-year-old at Mount Sinai would also receive part of the liver, and Palma and Edward Santos, another friend and church member, would get the kidneys. The pancreas would go to a patient in Minnesota who has chosen to remain anonymous.
Thomas Ginz, 67, from Guilford, Conn., got the call at 6:30 in the morning.
“You get a slip from the hospital that you can give to the police so you can actually speed to get there if you have to, because time is of the essence,” said Ginz, whose lungs were irreversibly scarred. (He did not have to use his free speeding ticket.)
Ginz, who has a disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which scars the lungs, needed oxygen all the time and was deteriorating so rapidly that even his doctor had begun to worry that a transplant might not come in time.
After the operations, some patients wrote Mirtala Garcia to thank her, and said they hoped to meet her someday.
Meeting the family
At their meeting, the recipients and families hugged and thanked Mirtala Garcia and her children. Several said they felt a powerful bond to her and her family. Laurenco, an artist, gave her one of his paintings. One recipient asked if she and her family might attend Garcia’s church.
For most, it had not been an easy year. Several had suffered from infections and frightening episodes of rejection, and all were dealing with complicated regimens of anti-rejection pills and other medicines. But all were grateful to be alive and were keenly aware that their survival had depended on someone else’s death, and the kindness of his family.
Garcia and her children have lived with loss and sadness. And without her husband’s earnings, Garcia, who cleans houses, struggles to pay the rent and feed her family. But she said she finds comfort, and sometimes even joy, in thinking that her husband lives on through other people, and that he would have wanted it that way.