A message from the heart
FOR THE YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC
Doctors at Spokane's Sacred Heart Hospital had told him that his ailing heart was barely functioning at 5 percent of its capacity. Ponce, then 60, held little hope in the fall of 2008 when his name was added to a waiting list for a heart transplant.
But just a month later, doctors found a match. Alex Capperauld, a 20-year-old from Tacoma, had died of hydrocephalus, a condition that affects the brain. After an eight-hour surgery, doctors successfully transplanted the young man's heart to Ponce, saving his life.
Ponce, a resident of Union Gap, says he is deeply grateful to Capperauld's family for choosing to donate their son's organs, and to LifeCenter Northwest, the nonprofit Seattle-based organization that secured the heart for him.
"You don't know if your number is going to be up, or if it will be someone else," Ponce says. "I would tell everyone, especially those who can donate their organs, to do so."
LifeCenter Northwest says it is stepping up efforts to create awareness among Latinos about the benefits of becoming donors. The center created a Spanish-language website -- donavidahoy.com (donatelifetoday.com) -- and, in commemoration of April as Donate Life Month, it is spreading the word about Ponce and his successful transplant.
Long before becoming a recipient, Ponce had chosen to become a donor when he received his driving license in 1981. He said he didn't hesitate and remembers thinking to himself, "It is better that someone is saved from having my organs than taking them to the tomb with me."
Ponce, a native of the Mexican state of Guerrero, arrived in the Yakima Valley in the late 1970s, and worked as a farm worker, a construction worker and a meat cutter.
He says his heart began to fail in 1999, when he was 51. Before the transplant, Ponce could barely walk and had to go to the emergency room twice for heart attacks.
Now, at 62, he makes a habit of walking every morning at 7 a.m. with his wife, Guadalupe, for 30 to 45 minutes. When the weather is bad or too cold, they stroll through the Valley Mall.
During the day, Ponce helps out at his son's home, where he and his wife are living, doing chores like driving his grandchildren to school or taking care of the garden.
"Though I am disabled, I like being active and helping out," he says. "I may not be able to work, but I want to stay in good condition so I can be useful."
Nationwide, 100,000 people are waiting for a transplant -- a kidney, liver or heart. In Washington state, over 1,600 people are waiting for an organ transplant and many will not survive the wait, says Cindy Combs of Donate Life Today and the spokeswoman for LifeCenter Northwest.
The vast majority, 1,300, are in need of a kidney, while 180 are on the list for a liver; 60 for a lung, and 65 for a heart transplant.
"The number of donors is very small and the need is very great," says Kevin O'Connor, the president of LifeCenter Northwest.
Because of the need, his organization is making a push to get more Hispanics to volunteer as organ donors. In 2009, they accounted for 36 percent of all donors in Southern California, but their donation rate is much lower in the Pacific Northwest, O'Connor says.
Elena de La Cruz, a spokeswoman for One Legacy, a donor transplant agency in Los Angeles, says some Latinos -- particularly those who are Roman Catholic -- may be hesitant to become donors because they believe doing so would violate church doctrine. However, when they learn that Pope Benedict XVI signed up as a donor when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, they are more likely to change their mind.
John and Daria Miller of Sunnyside, with the help of Living Legacy, also have actively encouraged other Latinos to become organ donors. When their son, B.J. Miller, the former captain of Sunnyside High's football team, died in a car accident in October 2007, the Millers decided to donate his organs.
With the help of Living Legacy, which is part of LifeCenter Northwest, the couple has participated in the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena for the last two years to help publicize organ donation.
After his transplant surgery in November 2008, Ponce asked LifeCenter Northwest to help arrange a meeting with the donor's family in Seattle. A mild-mannered, soft-spoken man, he asked his daughters to accompany him to help translate.
"We felt so sorry that Alex had to pass away," his daughter, Martha Ponce says. "It was so difficult to find the right words to express our sadness for their loss and our gratitude for giving my father a new life."