Donation of a lifetime

By Peter Simunovich

Debbie Delgado-Vega has a large color photograph of Howard Smith Vereen on her desk in her office in the Bronx. He has meant much to her, even though they have never met.

“He is a constant reminder of why I’m alive today,” she said. Vereen was an organ donor. Delgado-Vega has his liver.

“There is not a day or night that I don’t think of Howard. I touch the scar and his liver every night. I hug my liver like a child does a teddybear,” she said.

The transplant has given Delgado-Vega, 36, a second chance in life. Since the surgery she visits Vereen’s mother, Jannie, and her family in Jamaica every few months.

“They are my extended family; I have a part of them and they have a part of me. We have an emotional and spiritual bonding,” said Delgado-Vega, who lives with her husband, Santos, a financial adviser, in upstate Orange County.

It was a year before her transplant in 1995 that Delgado-Vega started the Latino Organization for Liver Awareness (LOLA), a nonprofit organization aimed at helping Spanish-speaking people become aware of liver disease and, when necessary, make referrals to physicians and hospitals for new livers.

Liver disease can run the gamut from the autoimmune condition once suffered by Delgado-Vega to cancer and hepatitis C, a viral condition transmitted by the sharing of contaminated needles and sexual intercourse. While there is no comprehensive statistical data on the subject, some doctors and health advocates say it appears that hepatitis C is a particular problem among Latinos.

“There seems to be a high figure among Hispanics; more research has to be done on this,” said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Reynolds said 4 million people in America had been infected with hepatitis C and 2.7 million Latinos were harboring the virus, which could lead to chronic liver disease.

“We’re calling it an epidemic that has already occurred,” Reynolds said.

One 1996 study of five blood centers around the United States found that people at highest risk of hepatitis C infection included Hispanics, blacks, males, those with less than a high school education, and an age range between 30 to 49 years. Another risk factor was a previous history of a blood transfusion, the study found.

However, medical researchers say it was unclear why Hispanics and Latinos seemed to have a high infection rate for hepatitis C.

“We don’t know why, we can only speculate. I don’t believe anyone knows,” said Dr. Steve Schemer, an expert in hepatitis and a professor of medicine and pharmacology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

Though she did not have hepatitis C, Delgado-Vega realized that there was a lack of awareness in the Latino community about the problem.

“I wanted to help,” she said. The result was the formation of LOLA.

However, soon it became Delgado-Vega who needed help. After having been diagnosed with autoimmune disease in 1992, a problem she was born with, it became apparent that Delgado-Vega needed a new liver. Things became particularly acute in November, 1995, when her blood sugar levels started to drop. Then, fate intervened.

On Nov. 9, 1995, Vereen, who came from a family of 15, died after shooting himself.

The next day Dr. Lewis Teperman, director of trans-plants at New York University Medical Center in Manhattan, performed the eight-hour transplant procedure.

“All I knew about the donor was that he was 18, an African American who had died of a self inflicted gunshot wound in Queens,” said Delgado-Vega.

She could have gone through life not knowing the identity of Vereen, had it not been for a chance meeting a year after her surgery at an event to honor donor families. Vereen’s sister Debbie, 35, of Jamaica recalled: “She approached my mother and started to cry, she was shaking and stuttering my mother thought she was having a nervous breakdown. I told my mother she has a piece of Howie. I hugged her so tight. She had a part of my brother that was keeping her alive.”

The meeting was as emotional as the night before Howard Vereen died when family members met to discuss what do with his body. “My sister, Lola, and I were very strong in donating his organs, some didn’t want to do it, but we reasoned with them,” said Vereen “Howard was a very generous person. He loved to help people.”

Two days after the transplant, Delgado-Vega, who rarely ate candy, had a craving for M&M; peanuts which Vereen said was her brother’s favorite.

Buoyed by the good health that a new liver has given her, Delgado-Vega remains active in LOLA “We have helped more than 25,000 people with support groups and referrals. We are bilingual [English and Spanish] but our doors are open to everyone,” she said. In LOLA’S first year it raised $50,000, and it has risen annually to $200,000 last year.

The need for liver transplants is expected to increase as hepatitis C, for which there is no vaccine continues to manifest itself, Dr. Teperman, who has performed hundreds of liver transplants, said, arrive diagnosis is on the rise, particularly in the Hispanic and Asian communities.” “In 10 years a million people will have cirrhosis of the liver and about a quarter of them will have cancer ,” he said. And, he said, there are not enough liver donors to go around.

Vereen says she has decided to donate her organs after she dies. “They are no good to me after I have died, but they might help someone else live,” she said. Delgado-Vega now leads a normal and healthy life and her physician has said she can have children. “We’re just waiting to make sure that everything will be OK,” she said.

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