In fight for organ transplants for undocumented and uninsured immigrants, it takes a village

In fight for organ transplants for undocumented and uninsured immigrants, it takes a village
Blanca Gomez, 23, is prepped for dialysis at 5:30 a.m., hours before marching three and a half miles with other hunger strikers to UIC Medical Center on the third day of the hunger strike. Gomez is both in need of a transplant and a hunger strike participant. Photo by Juan Labreche.

It’s around 10 p.m. and things are winding down at Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Mission. The church is a storefront on Little Village’s 26th Street, one of the busiest in Chicago, and rarely a moment goes by when a car doesn’t rush past the church in a blur. But inside the church, the street traffic seems a world away. In the church’s main room, spread out on the pews, are 10 adults taking small sips of water and chatting in subdued voices. The voices of a handful of raucous young children bouncing off each other seem louder in a room with so little noise. It’s here that Blanca Gomez is getting ready to rest for a couple of hours before getting up in the early morning to head to dialysis.

On the evening of July 30, almost every adult under the roof of Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Mission had been on hunger strike for at least 24 hours. They are among 14 people who are refusing to eat as part of a protest demanding that immigrants needing an organ transplant be placed on a transplant list. Some cannot get on the list because, under current law, they must have a valid Social Security number. Others are kept off the list because they are uninsured.

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Rev. Luis Alvarenga watches as a hunger striker heads to a car during the second night of the hunger strike at Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Mission. Photo by Juan Labreche.

The immigrants on hunger strike are patients themselves, like Gomez, who needs a kidney. The church is both their center of operations and resting place. It’s the second hunger strike for transplants the church has taken part in. A three-week hunger strike in June 2012 led to three immigrants being put on the transplant list, two of whom received organs.

“Because people don’t want to die, they do this. Hope for us is still alive,” said the Rev. Luis Alvarenga, the chaplain on call at the church overnight, and a fellow hunger striker. At 10:30 p.m., he lets the hunger strikers who are spending the night know he will be running the lights off.

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Maria Garnica and her six children sleep during the second night of the hunger strike at the church. Photo by Juan Labreche.

Gomez lays a blanket on the floor, pushing back a pew to make room for herself and her husband. They lay down with her feet near his head and vice versa. Their water bottles are placed at the back of the pew – where the Bibles would usually lay.

Gomez has had kidney troubles since she first gave birth to her daughter three years ago. From the moment she was first ill during her pregnancy, the question of where to get care was a constant concern. She gave birth at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System, one of the hospitals the strikers are now attempting to convince to place patients on the transplant list. But her immigration status soon made her ineligible for care, despite the fact that she continued to grow weaker and weaker. Soon Gomez had trouble even bathing her young daughter.

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Fr. José Landaverde of Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Mission speaks to media announcing the start of a hunger strike on July 28. Photo by Juan Labreche.

“I want a second chance to live,” said Gomez, who said she has five potential family members willing to give her a kidney. “It is an emergency not to have a transplant.”

Even for those like Gomez, who have possible donors lined up, the path to an organ transplant is not clear cut. Born in Mexico, Gomez came to the United States at the age 5. Now 23, she recently applied for and received a work permit and Social Security number under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to receive work permits. But even with a Social Security number, Gomez said she has been unable to purchase insurance because her kidney trouble is considered a pre-existing condition.

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Undocumented dialysis patients show their scars to media at a press conference to announce the start of a hunger strike July 28. The hunger strikers are trying to pressure Chicago hospitals to perform organ transplant operations for ailing undocumented immigrants. Photo by Juan Labreche.

The hunger strikers have reason for hope. The Chicago Reporter closely followed the case of Jorge Mariscal, who successfully received a kidney transplant at the Loyola University Health System in Maywood following the June 2012 hunger strike. But for those already in ill health, there are also daily reminders of the risks. Elfego Arroyo, an undocumented immigrant whose mother was one of the hunger strikers last year, died in July 2013 after receiving a liver transplant.

Gomez and the rest of the hunger strikers plan to continue their strike until all the patients in need of transplants are put on the transplant list, or a hospital offers to perform the surgery for those who are uninsured. The hunger strikers walked from Little Village to the University of Illinois Medical Center on July 31, and spent Sunday night in front of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

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Following a morning dialysis appointment and a three-and-a-half mile march, an exhausted Blanca Gomez takes a seat. Photo by Juan Labreche.

They are pressuring the University of Illinois Medical Center to hold a roundtable with other hospitals to eventually work toward a plan that would allow undocumented immigrants on their transplant lists, a promise the hungers strikers say the University of Illinois Medical Center made during the last hunger strike and didn’t keep. Their hope for Northwestern Memorial Hospital is that it will take on the patients who need liver transplants, a surgery produce for which Northwestern Memorial Hospital is known, they say. Neither the University of Illinois Medicaid Center nor Northwestern Memorial Hospital responded to requests for comment.

As the hunger strike goes on, Gomez says the camaraderie with those who are also risking their health and comfort to demand medical care for the undocumented and uninsured immigrants who need transplants keeps her going. “Just seeing each other is really nice. I know we are fighting for the same purpose,” she said.

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The marchers listen to a UIC Medical Center representative, who said the medical center would not promise transplants but would consider the marchers’ requests. Photo by Juan Labreche

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A sign in Spanish posted at Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Mission. The English translation is "save our sick [ones]." Photo by Juan Labreche.

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