On Sunday morning a group of five members of Our Lady of Guadalupe Angelican Catholic Mission in Chicago's largely Mexican neighborhood, Little Village, decided to stop eating. They say they are on a hunger strike, demanding organ transplants for two family members afflicted by a deadly liver disease.
Elfego and Lorenzo Arroyo suffer from primary amyloidosis, a disorder in which the liver produces bnormal proteins called amyloids, which cause organ failure. The only definitive cure for the disease is a liver transplant, according to Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for clinical affairs and chief medical officer at Rush University Medical Center.
For the Arroyo brothers there’s been an extra struggle to obtain a cure. Elfego and Lorenzo Arroyo are undocumented immigrants who lack health insurance and for whom access to the national liver transplant list is far more complicated.
While Elfego Arroyo has been placed on a waiting list for a liver transplant at Rush University Medical Center and is receiving medical care, his brother Lorenzo, who is currently being treated at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago, has been denied access to an organ transplant list, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Primary amyloidosis is a genetic disease passed from parent to child, according to Dr. Ansell.
The Arroyos' lost their mother a couple of years ago at age 63 to primary amyloidosis. Their older brother, Francisco Arroyo, also had the disease, but was able to receive liver transplant because he is a legal resident of the United States.
"Since we are undocumented, we cannot stay on the national liver transplant list," said Hilda Burgos, a friend of the Arroyo family and one of the protesters in the hunger strike according to WGN-TV, one of Chicago's television stations.
While there is no legislation that prevents undocumented immigrants from obtaining transplants in the U.S., lack of health insurance coverage is the biggest obstacle.
Undocumented immigrants rarely receive transplants when they need them, according to a report by the American Medical Association. The report suggests that immigrants in fact donate more organs than they receive. From 1988 to 2007 only 2,599 of the 414,901 organ transplants were received by undocumented immigrants-- 0.63 percent of all organ transplants. Meanwhile, during those years, 593 donors were of unknown citizenship and 7,670 were of unreported citizenship. They accounted for 2.5 percent for all organ donations.
Almost 25 percent of organ donors are ineligible for transplants themselves, according to the same study, because they lack insurance.
But healthcare restrictions are often complicated, and at times counterintuitive. In December, the New York Times chronicled the story of Angel, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, in need for a kidney transplant. Despite the fact his brother offered his own kidney to save his sibling's life, Angel's undocumented status put complicated his procedure, highlighting important contradictions in healthcare rules.
While New York’s federal-state health insurance program, Medicaid, would cover the cost of dialysis--regardless of the patients legal status in the U.S-- it wouldn’t extend coverage for organ transplant to undocumented immigrants, even though that procedure is cheaper than a life-long coverage of dialysis. The University of Illinois Hospital and Health Science System, where Lorenzo Arroyo is currently being treated, issued a statement saying potential transplant patients, including undocumented immigrants, are assessed individually to determine if they meet medical and financial criteria, according to The Chicago Tribune. If they have a living donor and the means to cover the transplant and follow-up care, they may be eligible for a transplant, the statement continued.
As for the Arroyo brothers, their plea for liver transplants continues. On Wednesday, advocates will stage a “ a march for life” to The University of Illinois Chicago Medical Center, along with an automobile caravan that will arrive at Loyola on Friday, according to EFE.
To help connect those in desperate need of a liver transplant with living donors, consider getting involved with the American Liver Foundation. Learn how you can contribute to the organization here.