California liver recipient, 13, on mission of thanks
Thursday, December 30, 2010
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Eleven-year-old Mikey Carraway’s liver had failed — doctors had two weeks at most to find an organ donor to save his life. Two days later, they had one— 18-year-old Johnny Hernandez, who suffered a fatal brain injury in a motorcycle crash.
Mikey, now 13, and his mom Shaheda Wright thanked the Hernandez family in person Wednesday in a rare meeting between a donor family and an organ recipient.
“We just want to say to you that if it wasn’t for your decision at tough time in your life, my son wouldn’t be here today,” Wright said.
“You don’t have to thank me,” said Johnny’ s mother, Christine Hernandez, tears spilling down her cheeks. “It was a gift from God.”
Mikey and his mom, who live in Oakland, arrived in Pasadena for Saturday’s Rose Parade, in which Mikey will represent the California Transplant Donor Network on the “Donate Life” float. The float, titled “Seize the Day,” will feature 30 organ recipients and the portraits of 60 donors made out of flowers.
The Hernandez relatives, who live around inland Southern California, came to Mikey’s hotel to meet him with photos of Johnny and a DVD of his funeral service. There were tears aplenty, but also some laughs.
“Do you feel Mexican at all now?” Denise Leyva, Johnny’s aunt, asked Mikey. “Are you getting sudden cravings for tacos?”
J.R. Aranda, one of Johnny’s close friends, related that Johnny was such a fan of the Oakland Raiders, he had the team’s insignia tattooed on his upper arm — unbeknownst to his mother.
Mikey, also a diehard Raiders follower, said he wants to get one in the same place. “Kid, wait a minute,” his mother cautioned. Instead, Aranda presented Mikey a blanket with the team symbol on it.
Donors and recipients don’t often want contact, said Cathy Olmo, community development manager of the Oakland-based California Transplant Donor Network. Most donor families want to move on with their lives and prefer not knowing details. The network encourages recipients to write a letter to their donors, and for most on both sides, that suffices, she noted.
Mikey and his mom, though, are exceptional cases.
They are “paying forward” Mikey’s gift of life by feeding the homeless once a month in a park in West Oakland in a venture called Mikey’s Meals. Over the past two years, they estimate they’ve served 3,500 people. The events also serve to raise awareness about organ donation.
It was Mikey’s idea, said Wright, 36. When she asked Mikey how he wanted to repay the generosity of his liver donor, well before they had contact with the Hernandezes, he said “feed the homeless.”
“It was the first thing that popped into my head,” he said. Now it’s become his favorite thing to do.
At first Wright was paying for the food out of her own pocket, but recently various sponsors have stepped up, including the Oakland Fire Department and a local high school, and the event has expanded to include giveaways of school supplies and holiday toys.
“Mikey is an extraordinary young man,” Olmo said. “He’s really taking this cause to heart. It’s a powerful message from him.”
Judging by sheer odds, Mikey was lucky. More than 107,000 people across the nation are waiting for organs — 16,000 of them need livers, which tend to collapse fast so the window of time to find a donor is slim.
Mikey’s liver failure came on suddenly — doctors believe from a virus. “He had been perfectly healthy,” Wright said. “This was definitely a shock.”
As Wright waited anxiously, the Hernandez family was facing death in another hospital. Johnny, who was an avid weightlifter and studied the Bible, had gone to night school on his motorcycle and collided with a truck on a freeway onramp. He was on life support.
Christine Hernandez said she had never thought about organ donation, but it turned out Johnny had. He was one of only 26 percent of Californians whose driver’s license carries the pink dot denoting an organ donor — he had signed up after seeing the pink dot on Aranda’s license.
“He thought that was pretty cool,” Aranda said.
It was an agonizing decision, but the family decided to honor Johnny’s wishes although his dad, Bob Hernandez, had a hard time when doctors came in with a list of organs and tissues for possible harvesting.
“He said ’you’re tearing up my son’ and had to leave,” said Christine Hernandez, who has a tattoo with her son’s name and dates of birth and death on her inner wrist.
Six months later, the family received word that Johnny’s heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver saved five lives, including three children, and his corneas restored sight to others. The other recipients have not contacted the Hernandezes, but two months ago they heard from Wright and the families started connecting.
“I feel they’re like extended family,” Wright said.
For Christine Hernandez, the new relationship has helped her find solace and give meaning to the senseless end of a young man’s life. “I don’t know if closure will ever be complete,” she said. “But it’s a way of moving forward.”
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