If you live in New Mexico and you need a liver transplant, you better pack your bags because you can’t get that surgery anywhere in the state.
Rio Rancho resident Paul Romero missed his son’s wedding here because he was 400 miles away, in Denver. He’d had a liver transplant and was staying there to recover.
“As you can see by my office, I kind of like superheroes,” Romero said. “The wedding had kind of a superhero theme in honor of me.”
When Romero became really sick really fast, local doctors didn’t know what was wrong. He visited some specialists in Denver and got his answer. He had liver cancer.
“And we give you between three to six months,” he recalled.
“To live?” I asked.
He cut it close. It took two months to find him a donor. During that wait, his daughter was having the hardest time of anyone. She was 16 back then.
“She came to me, and she was so young. She’s like, ‘Daddy, why you? Why does it have to be you?'’’ he explained. “And of course I said, ‘OK, mijita, tell me, tell me who else you want it to be.’” She didn’t have an answer.
When Romero got the call from his doctors letting him know they had a liver, the clock started ticking. He had seven hours to get to Denver or the organ would die. The drive from Rio Rancho takes almost that long.
“If my wife drives it’s probably six,” he said with a laugh. He was offered a small private plane, but he drove up with his wife instead.
After the surgery, he spent two months recovering in Denver. He said his wife must’ve made the drive up five or six times. Luckily he had a sister who lived there, so he stayed with her. And she drove him to his daily appointments the whole time.
“So you know, the thing that really gets you through this is the people around you,” Romero said.
Maria Sanders is with NM Donor Services. They support organ recipients and donor families. “In New Mexico a lot of people who are waiting for liver transplants are getting listed in Colorado, in Arizona, some in Texas, some as far away as Pittsburgh,” she said. "Many patients are so ill, they’re no longer able to even work, so they may be on Medicare and Medicaid.”
This map shows where New Mexicans are on liver transpant waitlists. Note there are no transplant centers in New Mexico.
You also have to consider who accepts your insurance, because liver transplants on average cost around half a million dollars. Romero had insurance. And even then, he said he and his wife spent their life savings to save his life.
But why do New Mexicans have to go through all this in the first place?
Michael Davis was a resident at the University of New Mexico Hospital when their liver program shut down 20 years ago. Now he’s is the head of the hospital’s kidney transplant program.
“You’ve got to have A) so many patients on a liver list and then B) your program has to do at least 10 a year to stay open,” Davis said.
New Mexico didn’t have enough of either one. A minimum of 125 people is preferred for a center’s waitlist. There are usually around 90 New Mexicans waitlisted.
There weren’t enough transplants happening to support the program, and it shut down in 2000. Locals have been going out of state ever since.
But that’s not to say there aren’t any resources here.
“There’s a collaboration with various high-volume liver transplant centers for patients here in New Mexico,” Davis said. That means your doctors here can set you up with whichever hospital you’re listed at. And they can run some tests on you locally so you don’t have to travel as much.
You do still have to travel, though. Romero can attest to how tough the experience was.
“There’s so many people who wait for years,” he said. “I didn’t have years to wait and to be honest, it was nothing less than a miracle that I’m here, that we’re talking.”
And he might be right. Not a lot of people get that kind of second chance.
Hundreds of people die waiting for a new liver every year, but most people who need a transplant don’t get waitlisted. The second story in our series, “Too Little, Too Late: Waiting For A Liver In N.M.” focuses on what it takes to make it on one of those waitlists.
Rashad Mahmood and Lissa Knudsen did the data analysis, graphics and maps for this series using tools provided by the New Mexico Community Data Collaborative.
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.