Renee Roybal, a San Ildefonso Pueblo member, advocates for American Indians to become organ donors. The 52-year-old mother of two daughters realized the need for more Native donors while waiting for a heart transplant match in 2002, reported the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Roybal suffered from cardiomyopathy, a rare viral infection that caused her heart to beat at triple the normal rate.
One evening in 1999 while enjoying a Chinese meal with her family, Roybal suddenly collapsed. Medication had temporarily kept her symptoms at bay. But after that near fatal dinner, a doctor put her on a defibrillator that kept her heart pumping for three years.
In March 2002, the time came for her to be evaluated for a heart transplant. She was airlifted from her Santa Fe, New Mexico home to the University of California, Los Angeles hospital. No New Mexico facilities can perform such an operation and only two hospitals in the state can perform surgery for kidney transplants.
In October, after spending six months away from her family, Roybal received news that they found her a heart from an 11-year-old girl in Los Angeles.
Roybal's long wait for a heart transplant belies a bigger problem in Indian Country—American Indians generally show reluctance to donating organs, Maria Sanders, New Mexico Donor Services community services director, told the Santa Fe New Mexican. Ironically, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure increase the community's need for organ transplants. Approximately a quarter of people in need of a kidney transplant, the most commonly transplanted organ, are American Indian. As of August 1, 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 1,057 American Indians were on the waiting list for organs in the United States.
And when it comes to transplanting organs, the risk is high. A less perfect match in tissue drives the probability of the body rejecting the organ.
"That gap is important," Sanders told the Santa Fe New Mexican. "One of the things that is done in addition to matching blood type is matching tissue. We're looking at the genetic makeup of donor vs. recipient."
Luckily for Roybal, her body has not rejected her heart since she received the transplant nearly a decade ago.
Roybal's focus has since turned to raising awareness of the need for American Indian organ donors. She explained the taboo surrounding organ donation to the Santa Fe New Mexican. The spirituality of many American Indian communities and significance placed on the body being "whole" upon death deters them from being organ donors.
Since her transplant, Roybal has been on a crusade to raise awareness of heart diseases and organ donation to New Mexico and its pueblos.
"I felt that being Native American, they don't really sign up to be donors. ...These are giving people. We're always opening our doors for people to come in. They should really look into giving themselves, also—giving life to another person, giving them a chance to live on," Roybal told the Santa Fe New Mexican.