Through no fault of his own, Ben Velasquez could do little to prevent his wife’s death of complications from diabetes seven years ago.
"I wanted to donate a kidney to my wife, but we weren’t a good match," the 54-year-old former Motorola employee said.
But he was a good match for former coworker Angela Davis. And this time, Velasquez was able to do something.
He donated 60 percent of his liver for transplant into the 28-year-old Fountain Hills woman on Sept. 29. The living donor procedure was only the 25th performed at Phoenix’s Mayo Clinic Hospital since it began the procedure in 2001.
"When I heard about Angela’s condition, I wanted to help, if I could," said Velasquez, who was laid off at Motorola and is studying to be a motorcycle mechanic.
At the beginning of 2003, Davis was a vivacious expectant mother who appeared to be the picture of health. That all changed later in January when she delivered a stillborn baby and doctors noticed nodules on her liver.
"I was fighting hepatitis C my entire life and never knew," Davis said. She contracted the disease at birth, the result of a blood transfusion at a time when blood was not screened for viral diseases. Most hepatitis C patients don’t know they have the disease until 20 to 30 years after contracting it, said Dr. David Douglas, medical director of Mayo Clinic Hospital’s liver transplantation program.
Davis’ health declined rapidly, and by June she had jaundice. She was put on a liver transplant list, which could have meant years of waiting while her health declined. But Velasquez stepped up.
The Phoenix resident met the required criteria: Younger than 55 and in good health, and he had an emotional relationship with Davis.
Only 40 percent of those who register to donate living organs are eligible.
But a deceased donor transplant is still the ideal choice for liver recipients because it doesn’t involve two living people, and the living donor procedure is still complicated and relatively new, Douglas said.
He said 2,000 people on the donor waiting list die per year.
"So for those who aren’t too sick and have a match, we consider live donations," he said.
The operation takes four to six hours, and the recovery time is six to eight weeks. Sixty percent of the right lobe of the liver is removed and immediately transplanted into the recipient. The liver, besides skin, is the only organ that can regenerate and will function normally in the donor in about seven days and a little longer in the recipient, Douglas said.
A week after surgery, Velasquez was ready to go home and complained only of slight discomfort that was treated with Tylenol. Davis is scheduled to go home today. She will require treatment for hepatitis C, which is incurable, for the rest of her life.
Davis said she is focusing on her future and looking forward to trying to have another baby. She wiped tears from her eyes, some of joy and some of sorrow, as she reflected on her experiences the past year. Her positive attitude shined through as she said enthusiastically, "I’m so blessed."
She and her husband, Michael, consider Velasquez a hero.
"It’s always the humble people who do the most in the world and don’t require attention," Michael Davis said.
Velasquez asks only one favor of Angela Davis — that she live a long and healthy life.
To become a donor
To register with the Arizona donor registry, visit www.dnaz.org.