San Diego Christmas will never be the same for three women who have never met, but whose lives became forever intertwined last December by the gift of life.
Inez Lontayo and Kyrie Nuno were among six desperately ill people who got the call from UCSD Medical Center on Dec. 16, 2014, that the donor organs they’d long awaited would soon be available for transplant. But Lontayo and Nuno both say their excitement was tempered with the knowledge that somewhere a family was facing Christmas without the man who would change their lives.
That day — two days after 29-year-old San Diego architecture student Eric Galen Hatcher was left brain dead by an assault in the Gaslamp Quarter — his heartbroken family agreed to donate his organs.
Jacqueline Hatcher of Fresno said the pain of losing her son (who went by his middle name) just a week before Christmas last year makes the holidays especially painful. But she’s comforted in knowing that five people are alive because of his gift.
Before her son’s heart, lungs, pancreas, kidneys and liver were removed Dec. 17, 2014, she placed her hands on his abdomen and prayed.
“I asked God to bless these organs and the bodies that would accept them, and to please bless each one of these people with a good life,” she recalled. “They have all been so sick and they still have a long journey ahead.”
Sweet but bittersweet
Many times over the past year, Lontayo said she has tried but failed to write a “sweet but bittersweet” letter of thanks to the family of the man whose pancreas and kidney saved her life.
“You get this card and start trying to say ‘thank you,’ but it doesn’t seem bright enough, big enough, and then you can’t see the paper anymore because it’s all so teary,” said Lontayo, 43, of Chula Vista.
At age 24, Lontayo was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Over the years, the disease ravaged her health and destroyed her kidneys. By 2012, she was on dialysis eight hours a day. Then in 2013, a stubborn infection left her hospitalized in failing health. A pancreas and kidney transplant were her only hope.
“I felt like I was being drained of life,” said Lontayo, an administrative specialist for the Navy. “I couldn’t feed myself, bathe myself or even climb the stairs. The doctors told me that every day on dialysis was shortening my lifespan.”
On the afternoon of Dec. 16, 2014, she was eating an apple at her father’s office when her cellphone lit up with the call from UCSD. She remembers the next several hours as a mix of exhilaration, crying jags and fear. But the surgery was a success and the new pancreas has made her diabetes-free.
To celebrate her first year of new life, Lontayo and her 23-year-old daughter, Janelle Richardson, organized an anniversary party last week. More than 80 people attended, but Lontayo said someone was missing. She asked Sharon Ross, executive director of UCSD’s Donate Life San Diego program, if she could meet the family of her anonymous donor.
Jacqueline Hatcher told Ross last year that she didn’t want to be contacted by the organ recipients, fearing the experience would be too painful. But as the anniversary approached this month, time and curiosity softened her feelings. She is now open to receiving letters, and perhaps meeting some of them, next year.
“I do think very joyfully about the recipients and I pray they have a good life,” she said. “I would tell parents who are considering organ donation to search their hearts and emotions and realize that those organs will do nothing for their child in the grave but will save a lot of lives.”
Lontayo said she wants Hatcher to know she’s been careful to keep Galen’s organs in healthy condition.
“They were a gift and I need to treasure them, so I’m treasuring me,” she said. “I promise her I will care for that part of him that I carry with me forever.”
Joy and anxiety
After five years on the waiting list for a double-lung transplant, 29-year-old Kyrie Nuno said she had practically given up hope that she’d ever get the call.
Diagnosed at age 18 with pulmonary hypertension, the Redlands single mom said the aggressive disease had forced her to drop out of college, stop working and even, at times, send her daughter to live with grandma. “My daughter had gotten used to me being sick and had to worry about me all the time.”
In the year leading up to her transplant, Nuno was hospitalized for months dealing with heart and kidney failure and vocal cord paralysis caused by repeated intubations. But her fortunes changed last December when she learned that a young man’s healthy lungs were waiting for her in San Diego.
“I was filled with joy and anxiety and all kinds of emotions,” she said. “I had prayed for an organ, but I also prayed for my organ donor. It was hard and it was sad, but I was so thankful.”
A year post-transplant, Nuno said she’s feeling good and making up for lost time with her 11-year-old daughter. Some day she hopes to return to college to study social work.
“My No. 1 dream is to see my daughter grow up,” she said. “I want to be at all her softball games and school events and catch up on all that I’ve missed.”
She said she would like to meet and thank Galen’s mother some day, and when she does, she knows what she’ll say.
“I would hug her and tell her that it wasn’t all for nothing,” Nuno said. “It’s an amazing miracle that I was able to get the organs and be able to have another year with my daughter.”
A precious little boy
Hatcher was asleep when the phone rang at 4 a.m. Dec. 14, 2014, with the news that Galen had been accosted and was in intensive care at UCSD Medical Center. Hospital officials wouldn’t tell her on the phone how serious his condition was, but as a nurse she knew to ask about the state of his eye pupils.
“She said ‘dilated’ and I knew what that meant. I went into shock and all I could do was go in circles moaning and moaning and praying and praying. I knew he was gone, but I asked God to send me a miracle,” she said.
Earlier that night, Galen had met friends for drinks at a nightclub at Fifth and Market streets. At 2:10 a.m., he was walking alone to his apartment on Third Avenue when he encountered a brawl under way near Fourth and G streets. Witnesses say he was crossing the street with one hand in his pocket when an unknown man punched him in the face with such force that his brain stem was damaged when his head hit the ground. The assailant has never been found.
Galen moved to San Diego in 2012 to study at the New School of Architecture Design. Here, Hatcher said, he had a large circle of friends and a serious girlfriend, whom he was planning to take to Italy last summer.
“He was a precious, little boy and as an adult, he was very tenderhearted,” Hatcher said. “Every friend, he had called him their best friend because they could tell him anything and he’d give them straightforward advice without sugar-coating anything.”
Keeping vigil by her son’s bed, Hatcher said she was aware that Donate Life officials had stopped by his room a few times to discuss organ donation, but she sent them away. “My focus was on how this was all the time I had left with my baby and I’m not going to think about anything else right now.”
Ross said she understands how hard it is for families to think about organ donation during their time of grief, but she has seen firsthand how the decision can help families move forward and “make something positive out of something so negative.”
Last year in San Diego and Imperial counties, organ donations saved 307 lives, but 76 people (1,018 statewide) died while awaiting transplants. California has the nation’s highest number of registered donors, 12.7 million, but two-thirds of the state population opt out for reasons including fear, cultural traditions or the belief that their health issues make their organs unsuitable (not true, Ross said). According to donatelifecalifornia.org, a single donor can save eight lives, and one donor’s tissue can help up to 50.
After about 36 hours and no hope for her son’s recovery, Hatcher said the fog in her brain began to lift and she was ready to make end-of-life decisions. She wasn’t aware at the time that Galen had registered with the DMV as an organ donor, but family and friends convinced her it was what he would have wanted.
“His best friend said Galen would be so proud of it that he’d be up in heaven bragging about it,” she said.
Because she anticipated how hard it would be to spend this Christmas without Galen, Hatcher left Monday for an extended trip. When she gets home in a month or maybe two, she would like to read letters and meet the recipients, particularly the person who received her son’s “kind and gentle” heart.
Ross said meetings like this are all too rare. Fewer than 5 percent of recipients ever meet the families of their donor. In her 11 years with Donate Life, Ross said she has been able to introduce only 31 families.
“It’s always emotional but wonderful,” she said. “It’s like a family reunion. It starts with tears and ends up on the couch with the whole group taking pictures together.”