After Frank Vega underwent a transplant operation Dec. 13, 2006, to replace his cancerous liver, he vowed to give back to the community in gratitude for his second chance at life.
He felt particularly grateful to the family of his organ donor, Vega added.
"My donor was a young man in his 20s who had an organ that was perfect for him and me," Vega said, his voice cracking, during a June 12 interview. "I’m trying to do something so that I didn’t take his organ in vain."
Vega’s said his focus is on increasing awareness in the Hispanic community about the great need for organ donors, as many Hispanics suffer from kidney disease as well as liver disease. Of the more than 16,000 Hispanics on a national waiting list for organs as of June 13, more than 13,000 were waiting for kidneys, according to data from the Organ and Procurement Transplantation Network.
"We’re trying to take the message to (Latinos)," Vega said. "They need to sign up to be organ donors."
Regardless of one’s ethnicity, having the option to become a donor or receive a transplant is a gift from God, said Father Bill Darling, parochial vicar at St. Mary Church in Canandaigua and St. Bridget/St. Joseph Church in East Bloomfield, who likewise underwent a liver transplant five years ago.
"A person who receives (a) donation has a tremendous future because someone was generous," Father Darling added. "We can make connections for people whether Hispanic or Caucasian. We have the science and medicine to do this. That’s a gift from God, that knowledge and skill."
Nearly 100,000 U.S. residents are on the national waiting list, and 17 die every day while waiting for an organ, said Linda Fraser, executive director of the Rochester Eye and Tissue Bank. Every 12 minutes, someone’s name is added to the waiting list, noted Karen Guarino, the agency’s communications director.
"The thrust of our education program is to provide correct information and make people aware of the tremendous need for donations, for the people waiting," Fraser said. "The outreach to the minority communities helps us address that."
The Rochester Eye & Tissue bank was established by local Lyons Club members in 1952 as a nonprofit organization. It currently works in partnership with the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, which began in 1986 and serves a 20-county area. The network is, in turn, affiliated with Strong Memorial Hospital, which specializes in liver transplants and is the upstate region’s only hospital to perform heart transplants.
Fraser explained that the eye and tissue bank’s focus is surgical recovery of corneas and such tissues as heart valves, skin, ligaments and bone. The donor-recovery network recovers major organs for transplant, said Rob Kochik, executive director.
"We all serve as liaisons between the patients waiting for organ and tissue transplants and the patients who die and become donors," he added.
Since time is of the essence when it comes to the use of the major organs for transplant, it not only is important for people to register as donors but also to let their families know ahead of time of their wishes to be organ donors, Fraser said.
"It’s so positive for the family to do what the person wanted," she added.
Many people may be unaware that the federal government requires hospitals to make timely referrals to organ- and tissue-recovery agencies of any patient who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, is going to be removed from a ventilator, or has suffered cardiac arrest and died, Kochik noted.
"It isn’t something people want to talk about," Fraser said. "Like writing a will, people don’t want to think about it. … But they need to decide so their family doesn’t have to decide, which is so agonizing."
While more families nowadays are aware of such terms as brain death and traumatic injury, Kochik added that no one is ever emotionally prepared for the conversation in the hospital with an organ- or tissue-recovery coordinator. Family members who talk with each other about their wishes, however, help everyone in the process, he added.
"The worst scenario is when we talk to families whose loved one didn’t make the decision ahead of time and they are burdened with making the decision," he said. "All too often they err on the side of no because they think, ‘If he had wanted to, he would have told me.’ People never get around to talking about it."
Both agencies also work hard to dispel misinformation people may have about becoming donors and distribute pamphlets addressing common questions, Fraser said.
One area of confusion has centered on signing the organ-donor consent on the back of a New York state’s driver license, Fraser said. While a legible signature on the back of a license has been legally acceptable to indicate that a person wished to be a donor, often the license is not with a patient at the time of death, and family members still face making the decision, Guarino said.
Beginning this summer, however, state residents who sign to register as donors upon obtaining or renewing drivers’ licenses or non-driver identification cards will be added to a confidential donor registry operated by the state Department of Health. The registry, which began in 2001, will be available to hospitals and organ- and tissue-recovery agencies. "Being in the New York state registry will ensure your donation wishes can be carried out," Guarino added.
Many people also mistakenly believe that their religious denominations are opposed to organ donation, Fraser said, noting that most major religions support organ donation.
"This (donation) promotes the sacredness of life and wholeness of life," Father Darling remarked. "God would choose life, and we’re choosing life."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that organ donation is a "noble and meritorious act" and is morally acceptable if proper consent is given and guidelines are followed.
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), Pope John Paul II wrote: "The Gospel of life is to be celebrated above all in daily living, which should be filled with self-giving love for others. … Over and above such outstanding moments, there is an everyday heroism, made up of gestures of sharing, big or small, which build upon an authentic culture of life. A particularly praiseworthy example of such gestures is the donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope" (No. 86).
Volunteers such as Vega strive to offer a personal example of that hope, Fraser said, noting that they "assist in helping us reach out and give us avenues to go to" in community-outreach efforts. Another liver recipient, Richard Perez, and his wife Antonia, also assist with outreach in the Hispanic community, Guarino added.
Vega, who also works with the Transplant Awareness Organization of Greater Rochester and Friends of Strong, was on the brink of tears as he spoke of the feedback he has received as a volunteer. People have told him that they became donors because of his story, and other transplant patients and families have told him they are encouraged by his own good health, added Vega, who always wears his green wristband proclaiming "Donate Life. Done Vida."
"I’m very proud because a lot of people tell me how much they appreciate what I do for them," he said. "What they don’t realize is what they do for me."
Vega, a U.S. Army veteran, retired from his job at JB Brady Inc. in 2006 after the transplant. He has four children from a previous marriage and two children with his wife of 23 years, Milagros, whom he met in Puerto Rico. His sole mission now is educating the Latino community about organ donation, he said.
"It’s not a common thing in the Latin community as far as becoming donors," Vega said. "It’s just that we don’t know it’s such an important thing to do."