Grieving Family Gives Gift of Life
Ventura County farm worker donates his dying wife's organs so others may live.
PASSINGS: 'Pregnant' San Andreas Could Be Ready to Deliver
By Catherine Saillant, Times Staff Writer
Antonio Molina's pager went off just as he was heading out to dinner near his Northridge home.
A glance at the message told the organ donation counselor that the meal would have to wait. A heart was available and a 14-year-old Westminster girl, being kept alive by machines at UCLA Medical Center, suddenly had a glimmer of hope.
Molina hopped back into his car and sped north on the Ventura Freeway.
Sixty miles away, in the intensive-care unit at Ventura County Medical Center, a young mother lay still, surrounded by a jumble of monitors, tubes and IV drips.
She was brain dead, killed by a complication of late pregnancy so rare and brutal that the Greek word for it means "bolt from the blue." Doctors had earlier delivered her premature infant by caesarean section.
Over the next few hours, Molina and Christina Gray, a nurse working the night shift, would see a family devastated by grief overcome conflicting emotions and agree to donate the mother's organs.
Gray has seen a lot of families make the same difficult decision in her 11 years on the job. But there was something especially powerful about this act of generosity, the nurse said.
A family who had been anticipating one of life's joyous occasions found themselves instead planning a funeral. And as immigrants who had illegally crossed the border from Mexico, they were fearful of authorities, the nurse said.
Still, she said, they were able to put aside those anxieties and quickly make a tough choice.
In doing so, Gray said, the 23-year-old mother Ã¢â‚¬â€ struck down two days before Thanksgiving Ã¢â‚¬â€ became the bearer of incredible gifts.
(PF note: according to the hospital, she died from HELLP Syndrome).
The donor family declined to be identified or interviewed for this article. But Molina and Gray were so touched by the family's generous act that they agreed to recount how it had unfolded.
Driving to Ventura that Nov. 25 night, Molina knew his task would be difficult. Even in better circumstances, the thought of removing vital organs from a loved one's body can be traumatic, said Molina, who coordinates donations for Los Angeles-based One Legacy transplant network.
But tonight he would be approaching a Spanish-speaking family unfamiliar with American customs.
Statistics show that the number of Latino donors in the United States lags proportionally behind whites and blacks, probably due to a cultural suspicion of the practice, Gray said.
While transplant networks do not track immigration status, a One Legacy spokesman said illegal residents frequently are donors locally.
"It's fairly common here in Southern California for immigrants to donate," spokesman Bryan Stewart said. "They are very giving."
As far as Molina knew, the husband had never talked about organ donation with his wife. And to make matters worse, the family was still reeling from the stunning events of the past two days.
The man's wife, entering her eighth month of pregnancy, had gone to Simi Valley Hospital a day earlier complaining of a racing heart and severe headache, Molina said. While there, she went into a seizure and lapsed into unconsciousness.
Doctors decided to transfer her to Ventura County Medical Center, where an emergency C-section could be performed and the premature infant immediately taken to a special neo-natal intensive-care unit, Molina said.
Physicians were able to save the baby boy, but the mother was deteriorating fast, Molina said.
She had experienced a severe episode of eclampsia, a rare condition that causes blood pressure to suddenly zoom dangerously high and can trigger seizures, coma and even death.
In most cases, delivery of the baby relieves the mother's deadly symptoms. But this mother was one of the unfortunate few who could not be saved, Molina said.
Now, as the clock approached midnight, he would have to ask the family to consider donating her organs.
The husband had come straight from his farm job and was wearing dirty jeans and a light-blue work shirt, Molina recalled. Standing ashen-faced but stoic with the couple's other son, a 3-year-old, in his arms, he listened but did not respond, Molina said.
Meanwhile, a sister who looked like she could be the patient's twin was trying to confront the reality before her.
"She said, 'My sister came to the hospital alive and now she is dead? How can that happen?' "Molina said. "There was a lot of denial and anger, which is usual."
Molina explained what brain death meant Ã¢â‚¬â€ there was no brain activity and the heart and other organs were functioning only with the assistance of machines.
He also told them they would have to make a decision fast. The woman's heart had already stopped once, revived only after 24 minutes of effort by doctors, he said.
The family asked Molina to give them an hour to think about it. He agreed and went back to the ICU to wait.
Thirty minutes later they called him into the woman's room. At his wife's bedside, the husband at last began crying and sobbing, Molina said.
"He said they would like to donate her organs and that they would like to have contact with the families that receive the organs so that her kids will know what their mother had accomplished, even at the end," he recounted.
Then, Molina said, the man reached down, kissed his wife's forehead and said, "OK, what papers do I need to sign?"
Vicky Vo gripped her daughter's hand in the cardiac intensive-care unit at UCLA Medical Center. It was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and doctors had told her that 14-year-old Genevy Pham's chances were slim.
Disease has thickened and enlarged Genevy's heart to the point that it was barely working; the girl was alive only because a machine pumped blood through her body.
Already, Genevy's heart had stopped once, for 15 long minutes, before being revived. Vo was praying for a miracle.
America had been a land of wonder and opportunity since the family arrived from Vietnam in 1991, she said. All four of her daughters had done well in their Orange County schools and her husband, David Pham, had found a stable job delivering newspapers.
Then Genevy, her youngest, started getting sick three years ago. Medications helped initially, but she slowly got worse.
In early November she was placed on the heart recipient list because her condition had grown so perilous. Just a week later, One Legacy called Vo and told her that a heart had become available.
"We thought we had lost her," Vo said. "To hear that news Ã¢â‚¬â€ it was a miracle. Somebody could save her life."
Genevy was too groggy to understand what was happening when she was wheeled into a surgical suite that Wednesday night. The seven-hour surgery went off without a hitch.
On Thanksgiving Day, Genevy awoke with a new heart beating in her chest.
"I didn't know I was getting a new heart, so when I woke up it was a surprise," she said softly. "I was very grateful. Very happy. Overwhelmed."
Four others from Los Angeles, Northern California and Phoenix also benefited, Molina said.
The mother's left kidney went to a 44-year-old African American man who had been on dialysis since 1998, Molina said.
He started producing urine within an hour of the operation, he said.
The right kidney went to a 40-year-old Latino landscaper who was close to death from renal disease and had been waiting for two years, Molina said.
A 60-year-old white grandmother with cirrhosis received the liver, and the pancreas was transplanted into a 40-year-old white woman suffering from diabetes.
Genevy did so well that she was released from the hospital after two weeks, in time to be home for Christmas. Just a month after her surgery she is breathing better. She has not yet met the donor's family, but has feelings of guilt over the way she received her heart, the teenager said.
At the same time, she is appreciative of the renewed life ahead of her.
Already she is planning the coming year. She will join a dance club at La Quinta High School when she returns to classes in April, she said.
She will resume playing cello and concentrate on her favorite subjects, English and math.
And one day, Genevy said, she will become a nurse, so that she can care for people just as a stranger cared for her.
"I pray for my donor every day," she said. "I just thank her for being so kind. For giving me her heart. And I'm just so happy I have a second chance at life."
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Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times