Twenty-three year old Maria sits at her kitchen table as her young daughter reads a book to her. WBEZ agreed not to use Maria’s last name because she and her husband entered the country illegally eight years ago.
Maria doesn’t understand English but just being able to sit up and listen is a feat in and of itself. And she can do other things now.
“I’m able to walk. I’m able to exercise. I can eat anything I want. I can do everything,” Maria says in her native Spanish.
Just a couple of months ago, all the mundane activities that most people take for granted, like washing the dishes and other household chores, were impossible for her to do.
That’s because Maria was very sick.
She says she always felt weak, even as a young girl in her native Michoacan, Mexico. Then two years ago, Maria found out her kidneys weren’t working and she needed emergency dialysis.
“I was living because of the dialysis. Three days a week for three hours. I came out feeling very tired and dizzy. I just didn’t feel well,” Maria said.
Eventually, she was told by doctors she needed a new kidney. Under normal circumstances, getting an organ transplant is a dicey proposition. But Maria’s immigration status made it even more difficult.
“I was going to look for a donor and put my name on a waiting list but they couldn’t because I’m undocumented,” Maria said.
It was a tough pill to swallow.
“She just told me she was going to die,” said Jose Bustos, director of Casa Santo Toribio in East Chicago, Indiana. “When you hear a 21, 22 year old young lady tell you that she’s going to die and she’s afraid that she’s not going to be able to see her family in Mexico, it’s heartbreaking, it’s heartbreaking.”
Casa Santo Toribio is a center dedicated to serving the region’s undocumented immigrant community. It’s part of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in East Chicago, a small industrial city that sits a few miles south of Chicago’s border with Indiana.
Maria arrived there seeking assistance and to attend Mass with her family. She reached out to Bustos and other parishioners when she became ill.
Bustos started searching for a donor within the congregation who might be a biological match. There was no one, but Maria didn’t give up hope.
“I have faith in God and the Virgin Mary. And I would always ask to give me another opportunity,” Maria said.
That’s when word got to St. Mary’s Pastor, Father Stephen Gibson.
“I knew nothing about it. We just wanted to help her and so I and others investigated what was her blood type and things like that,” Gibson said. “And, I decided to do it just out of curiosity.”
Father Gibson has been the pastor at St. Mary’s for 20 years. The Oak Park native comes from a large Irish-Catholic family. Most of his 12 brothers and sisters are in religious life. He also happens to be a second cousin to the actor Mel Gibson.
But being that Gibson isn’t Latino, Jose Bustos didn’t think the priest could help.
“I said ‘Father, I’m Mexican — and we didn’t match. What makes you think, a Caucasian person, that you are going to match?’” Bustos said he told Gibson.
But, as they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
“[My doctor] sent me a message saying this is from God, you’re 100 percent compatible,” Gibson said.
Maria was shocked when she heard.
“I was in dialysis when I got the news. I was crying over the news that I got a donor and that I have someone for the kidney,” Maria said.
Gibson said he had no hesitation about going through with the operation.
“I wanted to do it so when I found out I could, then there was no question. Not for the slightest moment,” Gibson said.
The transplant was performed in April at Northwestern Memorial Hospital by Dr. Juan Caicedo. He says ethnicity doesn’t determine who can donate and receive organs.
“Everyone, beneath our skin, we’re the same. You can be African-American, Asian, Hispanic or Caucasian, all of us we’re kind of similar under our skin,” Caicedo said.
Caicedo, who heads Northwestern’s Hispanic Transplant Program, says finding a willing donor is the toughest challenge.
“The decision to help somebody else. You know, this doesn’t happen every day. He’s a priest. It’s a huge act of love.”
But others aren’t so lucky.
About 100,000 people in the United States need an organ transplant every year, but fewer than one in five actually get one. In Illinois alone, 300 people die each year waiting for an organ.
Kevin Cmunt is president and CEO of Gift of Hope, a nonprofit network that secures organs in Illinois and Northwest Indiana. He says the half million undocumented immigrants living in the Chicago area actually helps increase the odds.
“We all benefit when our entire community participates in donation, whether we’re Caucasian, whether we’re a citizen or noncitizen, we all benefit,” Cmunt said. So, it’s not that a non-citizen receiving an organ is taking one away from anyone. I see it as a larger pool of organs that frankly gives more people a chance to get transplanted.”
But even if you find a donor, there’s still the issue of how to pay for the operation.
In Illinois, a new law went into effect last fall as part of the state’s Medicaid Reform Bill that pro-immigrant groups hailed as a victory.
It allows undocumented immigrants to be eligible for taxpayer-supported kidney transplants if they are on emergency dialysis. While some worry about the upfront cost, advocates say it will save money in the long run.
Cmunt says the law would probably benefit fewer than a hundred individuals since not all of the roughly 700 or so undocumented immigrants on emergency dialysis would be healthy enough to receive a transplant or have the means to pay for ongoing medication.
So far, Cmunt says, Illinois’ fiscal problems have hampered the law’s overall effectiveness.
“There have been very few patients transplanted under that. It hasn’t been effective at all because no one is certain that it’s going to receive funding next year,” Cmunt said.
Maria was able to obtain private insurance coverage arranged through the efforts of Northwestern. Today, as she recovers from the procedure, she says she still lives in fear of being deported. But having a new kidney has changed everything.
“The day after the transplant, you feel like life has returned to you. You have a new life,” Maria said.
Following the transplant, Father Gibson did experience a few lingering side-effects but has now fully recovered. With that, he says he can now concentrate on raising funds for a new center to assist the undocumented community by offering citizenship classes and even arts programs for children.
Back at the church in East Chicago, parishioners like Jose Bustos call what happened an act of God.
“El Milagro en Indiana. The miracle in Indiana,” Bustos said. “And, this miracle in Indiana gave a new lease to the life of this young lady.”
Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Bureau Reporter. Following him@MikePuenteNews.