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A mother finds solace in lives her son saved

Erica Rangel-Baez knows the pain of losing a loved one. That's why she wants Californians to sign up with the state organ donor registry.

July 12, 2007|Mary Engel | Times Staff Writer

When the nurse asked Erica Rangel-Baez if she would be willing to donate her son's organs, Rangel-Baez prayed to know what to do.

Just days earlier, 9-year-old Frankie Hernandez was perfectly healthy, an outstanding baseball player. But on a Sunday afternoon in 2005, he walked into his family's house in Arleta, clutching his head and complaining of a headache so fierce he needed to go to the hospital.

Halfway to the hospital, he stopped breathing.

Frankie underwent eight hours of surgery for a brain aneurysm at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and Rangel-Baez spent the next three days praying for him to wake up.

When doctors pronounced him brain dead and the nurse asked about his organs, Rangel-Baez prayed again, this time to Frankie.

"I asked him, 'What would you do?' " she said Wednesday. "And the answer came to me in a heartbeat. He would have wanted to help people."

Rangel-Baez spoke at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital on Wednesday as part of a campaign to urge Latinos and members of other ethnic and racial groups to sign up as organ donors on a 2-year-old state registry. Because the registry is relatively new, most organ donor decisions are made by grieving families at hospitals.

Data released Wednesday revealed who needs organs and who donates them in Southern California.

In 2006, almost half of all organ donors in seven Southern California counties were Latino, according to figures released by OneLegacy, the nonprofit group that oversees transplants in those areas. Whites, who like Latinos make up about 40% of the population in those counties, accounted for 34% of donors.

One of the reasons Latinos in the Southland make up such a large proportion of donors is a culture of generosity, said Bryan Stewart of Donate Life California, the state's organ donor registry that was launched in April 2005. But the Latino donation rate also has to do with the way many of them die.

Although most deaths across all races and ethnicities are caused by chronic diseases such as heart disease or cancer, a disproportionate number of Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans die unexpectedly from accidents or assaults. Roughly half of transplantable organs come from donors who die of such causes or from intracranial bleeding, Stewart said.

Blacks accounted for 11% of all donors in 2006; Asians, 8%.

Many blacks distrust the medical system, said Mamie V. Jackson, president of the National Organization for Renal Disease, who 12 years ago received a transplanted kidney.

"African Americans have more kidney disease than anyone else," she said. "But a lot of us feel that if we donate organs, they're not going to go to African Americans, they're going to go to Anglos because they get everything."

But statistics tell another story, Jackson said. Blacks, who make up 7% of the population in the seven Southland counties that OneLegacy serves, in 2006 made up 17% of the kidney waiting list and received 15% of the transplanted kidneys.

California has more residents awaiting organ transplants than any other state in the nation. More than two-thirds are Latino, African American or Asian/Pacific Islanders, mainly because of the high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity in those populations that often lead to kidney failure, liver disease and other ailments.

The organ most in demand in California is the kidney, followed by the liver, the heart, the lungs, the pancreas and the small intestine.

For 30 years, Californians have been able to sign a donor card and put a pink dot on their driver's license to signal that they were willing to donate their organs after a fatal illness or injury. But what most people don't realize is that the "donor dot" alone is not legally binding, nor is it registered anywhere but the license itself, Stewart said, so survivors faced with the decision to donate a family member's organs might not have access to it for guidance.

The 2-year-old Donate Life California Organ & Tissue Donor Registry, www.donatelifecalifornia.org, is an online advance directive that hospitals check when it appears a patient may qualify as a donor. The registry partnered with the state Department of Motor Vehicles last April, allowing Californians without Internet access to register when they apply for or renew their driver's license or identity card.

Donated organs usually go to people in the same region because the shorter the travel time, the better the chances that the transplant will be successful.

Frankie's mother knows the names of the children who received his kidneys and liver but has never met them. A classmate received his small intestine. His heart, placed in a small container filled with ice, was taken by helicopter to Mattel Children's Hospital. Dr. Juan Alejos, medical director of the hospital's pediatric heart transplant program, knew what had happened to Frankie.

"The organ comes at a huge cost," he said. "It helps keep me focused."

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