NANUET — During the 78 days that Roxanne Watson was in a hospital bed waiting for word that a new heart was available to replace her own failing one, she noticed something about the other transplant patients in the same ward.
Like her, most were black or Latino. When Watson's new heart finally did come, it was from a young white man.
As the Nanuet resident recovered from her life-saving heart transplant, she was disturbed when she learned facts about race and organ donation. Blacks and Hispanics are overwhelmingly represented among the thousands of people on waiting lists for transplanted organs. But members of ethnic minority groups tend to trail in the proportion of people who become organ donors.
Now, a year after the gift of a new heart from a stranger saved her life, Watson is trying to change those numbers.
The 57-year-old former Pelham store manager is working with organ donation groups as well as community organizations to raise awareness about the need for blacks and Latinos to sign up to be organ donors.
"My life was saved by organ donation," she said. "Don't be selfish — sign up."
That was what she told more than 200 guests at a party she held at her Nanuet home recently to mark the anniversary of her transplant.
In response, 15 people signed organ donation cards and others said they would give it careful consideration.
The need for organ donors is great.
More than 111,000 people nationwide are on transplant waiting lists, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nationwide organization that helps match donors and organs.
In New York alone, more than 9,600 people are on waiting lists. Nearly one-third are black, according to reports cited by New York Organ Donor Network. An additional 17 percent are Hispanic.
Both ethnic groups are more prone to illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes that can result in kidney failure — the most common cause of transplant.
In New York, people who are white made up 60 percent of the deceased organ donors last year.
The same reasons that cause more blacks and Hispanics to need organ transplants in the first place might be contributing to the gap by preventing people from those ethnic groups from being considered for organ donation, experts said.
But something else is likely at play, said Leo Trevino, director of the organ and tissue donation initiative at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, where Watson had her transplant.
Some ethnic groups tend to fear or distrust hospitals and the medical establishment, he said. Others worry that by consenting to be an organ donor they would reduce their chances of getting good medical care in an emergency if they needed it, Trevino said.
"That's a big fear, especially for people who are poor or don't have insurance or don't speak English," he said.
Such misconceptions are hard to overcome, he said.
"That's why we need ambassadors like Roxanne," Trevino said.
The Rockland County woman has reached out to celebrities, especially those well-known in the black community.
She was invited to appear on "Oprah's All Stars," a show that airs on the star's OWN network. When Watson appeared on the show, she got the surprise of her life: The family of the man who donated the heart that now pumps in her chest was also there.
Michael Blain Bovill, 23, of Long Valley, N.J., a volunteer firefighter and member of the Coast Guard, was headed back to a training camp on Long Island on July 11, 2010, when his motorcycle crashed on the George Washington Bridge.
Several days later, his grief-stricken family knew he would never wake from the coma he was in. John and Jilayne Bovill had never discussed organ donation with their son, but they said they knew it was the right thing to do.
"He was a volunteer fireman, he was in the Coast Guard," John Bovill recalled. "Every day, he was out there saving lives. He loved helping people."
The couple said their son, like the rest of the family, was guided by a strong Christian faith. That faith made it easier for them to decide their son's final act would be to give life to others
When they appeared on Winfrey's show, which has not yet been scheduled for airing, they met Watson for the first time as well as some of the others who got their son's organs.
They included a 17-year-old African-American boy who got one kidney; an Asian man who received their son's liver; and a white man in his 30s who nearly died from cystic fibrosis until he received a transplant of their son's lungs.
A fifth recipient, a young Hispanic child who got a kidney, was the only one of the group who did not attend.
"I can't even describe the emotions," John Bovill said. "I cried. It crosses all racial barriers, and it showed that we are all created in God's image."
The couple and their three surviving daughters remain in touch with the recipients and recently learned that the wife of the man who received the lungs is pregnant.
The family hopes that Watson tells her story — and theirs — to encourage others to consider organ donation.
Watson's son, Kellen Wingate, is a member of First Baptist Church in Spring Valley, a large and influential African-American congregation.
He plans to reach out through the church to encourage donation. Watson is working with the Martin Luther King Multi-Purpose Center in Spring Valley and plans to tell her story there.
That's the kind of outreach that is needed to increase awareness about organ donation, Trevino said.
"We need more of that," he said. "When it comes to saving a life, every human being would do it if given a chance."