On Sunday at 11 am, Sonia Lopez, Hilda Burgos and Lorenzo Arroyo stopped eating. The three started a hunger strike to demand medical treatment for family members who have been denied a spot on the organ transplant list because they are undocumented.
And as a result, says Burgos, these loved ones are slowly dying.
Each of the hunger strikers has an experience related to transplants. Sonia Lopez’s son, Jorge Mariscal, lost one kidney to cancer and his second is diseased. Arroyo’s brother is in need of a liver transplant.
Burgos has the most hopeful story--her son was able to get a transplant after her sister volunteered to donate a kidney.
“We as mothers don’t want our kids to die,” said Burgos. Lopez first took the decision to go on a hunger strike, and “we are supporting her because we know what it is like.”
The barriers and hurdles to getting transplants for undocumented immigrants are varied, and depend on individual situations.
Firstly, Burgos says, a valid social security number is essential to getting on the transplant list.
In her case, her sister’s organ donation meant that her son didn’t have to worry about the list.
Next comes the cost of the procedure and the expensive medication needed afterwards. Most undocumented immigrants are uninsured--they make up 7 million of the 46.3 million uninsured people in the country. They are also ineligible for Medicaid and Medicare.
Burgos’ son was eligible for Illinois’ All Kids state healthcare, which is awarded regardless of immigration status, but had grown out of the program by the time he needed the transplant.
Burgos says that with a donation from Rush Hospital, which agreed to do her son’s transplant, and the post-operation medicine offered at a discount from Cook County Hospital, her son was able to get a new kidney.
She says that it is not impossible to save Mariscal’s life, but it is essential to get the approval of a hospital to do the transplant.
Guidelines on transplants answer few questions about whether immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, can receive organs, according to a 2008 study by Charu Gupta with the American Medical Association. Along with “indirect exclusion” through a lack of insurance coverage, undocumented immigrants rarely receive transplants when they need them.
Burgos said that Lopez and her son had tried several hospitals, all of which had refused to take Mariscal.
Research shows that between 1988 and 2007, undocumented immigrants contributed 2.5 percent of all donations, while only receiving 0.63 percent of the organs.
Mariscal, who Burgos says is in serious condition, came to the United States at the age of 1. She calls it a cruel irony that though he was able to graduate high school, the constant dialysis for his kidney had made him too weak to attend college or contribute to the country he has lived in practically his entire life.
Burgos says that the community is willing to help Lopez and Arroyo raise money to fund the needed operations. But she stresses that the target of the hunger strike is the hospitals-–if they can agree, she says, the money won’t be an obstacle.
“Everybody from the community can help with that.”
And until the hospitals come to a decision, she says, they won’t be taking any breakfast, lunch or dinner.
© Community Renewal Society 2012
Photo credit: Mario Garcia-Baeza