GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Of the more than 100,000 people in the nation waiting for an organ transplant, nearly 60% of them are minorities. It's believed that long-held cultural differences are among the reasons why minorities are traditionally less likely to be registered organ donors, despite the fact they're at a higher risk for conditions which can lead to organ failure.
Two minority men from Michigan have forged a strong friendship through organ donation, and the continued impact being made by a little girl from beyond the grave.
Friday, July 22, 2010 started like any other day in Lansing, Mich.
However, it far from ended like any other day.
"I was working third shift at my job at the time when I got a phone call from Amaia's mother," said John Edmond, 43, Amaia's father. "She told me Amaia had been shot in the head."
Edmond says he immediately left work and drove straight to the crime scene.
"I was full of rage and was ready to kill," Edmond said. "When I got there, I was told Amaia's step-father accidentally shot Amaia."
Amaia, who had just celebrated her 7th birthday earlier that summer, was rushed to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing where she was determined to be brain dead on arrival.
"Amaia was on life support for 24 hours at which point we needed to make a decision," said Edmond. "We decided to let God decide."
Amaia Edmond passed away.
"I didn't want to accept the fact that she was gone," said Edmond. "Through my grief, I knew Amaia loved people and always wanted to help people."
That's when John decided he wanted to donate her organs.
"I knew in that moment it was the right thing to do," said Edmond. "It's the greatest gift that anybody could ever receive.
"I had no idea the impact that it would have."
Meanwhile, a hundred miles west of Lansing, Mike Lopez was visiting his doctor at a hospital in Holland, Mich. where he was told his flu-like symptoms where happening because of something else.
"My doctor told me that my liver was only functioning at 20%," said Lopez, 63. "He then told me, 'You're going to have to have a transplant in order to live.'"
Fear immediately set in for Lopez and his family.
"Right away you think, 'Am I going to die?'"
After Lopez's doctors ran more tests, they found a spot of cancer on his liver, which was removed. But, the discovery of the cancer immediately bumped Lopez to the top of the Michigan organ donor list.
On Saturday, July 23, 2010, (the day Amaia Edmond died), Lopez got the call he'd been waiting for.
"I was told a liver had been found for me and was asked how fast can I get to the hospital," said Lopez.
Lopez and his family immediately drove from Holland to Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital where he underwent the liver transplant that evening.
He was given Amaia Edmond's liver.
During his recovery, Lopez wanted to know more about his donor, so he contacted Gift of Life Michigan, which is the state's only federally designated organ and tissue recovery program, providing all services necessary for organ donation to occur.
"Somebody had just lost a loved one that gave me life," said Lopez. "The only thing I was told was that it was a young person."
Lopez wanted to reach out to the family to learn more so he asked Gift of Life Michigan to help facilitate that. It didn't take long before Mike and John Edmond started to communicate.
"It started with hand-written letters, then it escalated to phone conversations, then we decided we wanted to meet," said Lopez. "When I found out Amaia was my donor, this 7-year-old girl, I started to cry and my heart ached for the family to know what they were going through and that she gave me life."
Once fully healthy and back on his feet, Lopez drove to Lansing to meet John.
"When we saw each other, we embraced and both started crying," said Lopez.
"I saw Amaia's eyes in his eyes," said Edmond.
The two immediately bonded, forging a friendship that celebrated its tenth anniversary this summer.
"Mike is family," said Edmond. "We are like brothers."
The pair aren't just friends, they've become a force, speaking at numerous anti-violence events throughout the state, while also urging minorities to sign up on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.
"Minorities aren't good with that," said Lopez. "Hispanics and Black people don't want anything to do with it because they think the doctors won't work as hard to save their lives and will just let them die.
"I used to think that way, too, until I had my transplant."
John Edmond agrees.
"Amaia's death has shown me that organ donation is a blessing," said Edmond. "Her organs didn't only save Mike, they also saved four other people's lives.
"That makes me a proud father, seeing what she was able to do in death, and continues to do all these years later."
Lopez and Edmond say they will continue to speak publicly about organ donation, and use Amaia's story to hopefully establish the ongoing need for multicultural donors, and dispel common misconceptions.
"Amaia's spirit lives on," Edmond said. "Her legacy is ongoing."
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