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La Joya Early College High School freshman volunteers with TOSA 14 years after life-saving liver transplant
When she was just ten months old, Shantel Garza was given a second chance at life thanks to a family who opted for organ donation in the wake of tragedy.
Garza, a freshman student at La Joya Early College High School, is a typical teenager with an atypical story. Born with a chronic liver disease called biliary atresia, she required a liver transplant as an infant – and her parents were faced with the possibility that their newborn may not make it.
After ten months on the donor list, Shantel found a match. This week (April 19-24) is National Pediatric Transplant Week.
“I’m happy to be reaching out to people, and I know my story impacts others’ lives,” Shantel said. “I’m hoping that they sign up to be organ donors, because there are many lives that can be saved by that.”
According to the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance, approximately 2,000 children are on the national transplant waiting list, which grows every ten minutes. Around 25 percent of those children are under 5 years old.
Size is critical for pediatric transplants, meaning the most successful transplant for a child would be from a pediatric donor. Before finding her eventual donor family, Shantel had been matched with two previous livers that were too big for her body.
“It’s really important because you’re saving a child’s life, one who has a whole future ahead of them,” Shantel said. “It is very hard to lose a loved one, but at the same time you’re saving someone’s life.”
To highlight the need and remember precious donors who have saved lives, National Pediatric Transplant Week is observed during National Donate Life Month in April. According to Donate Life America, last year there were 917 pediatric donors.
Annually, thousands of pediatric cornea and tissue donors help enhance lives. The need for organs on the pediatric waiting list is similar to adults, with kidneys being the organ most in need for children. However, patients under the age of 1 are often waiting for a heart or a liver.
The Garza family weren’t strangers to the organ donation process. Five years before Shantel was born, her older brother Caleb was born with a heart defect that led doctors to believe he was only expected to live one day.
Thanks to some donated tissue, surgeons were able to reconstruct Caleb’s heart – and following his successful surgery, their entire family signed up to be organ donors. Caleb passed away in 2016 before he would have undergone a heart transplant, and the Garza family spoke on how organ donation has impacted all of their lives in tremendous ways.
“They approached us and asked us if we wanted to be organ donors, and we had never gone through something like that,” Alicia Garza, Shantel’s mother, said about their experience with Caleb. “In a heartbeat, I said yes, because if my son could save others, of course.”
As a 15-year-old, Shantel enjoys singing in her school and church choir, playing sports and teaching classes with her worship team at the Spanish Assemblies of God. For the rest of her life, every three months will have lab work done to ensure her body is healthy, and every year she has a check-up on her transplant.
“I am very grateful that I got a second chance at life,” Shantel said. “This is something that I can do to spread the word to others in the community. If it wasn’t for the organ-donating people in our society, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Shantel and Alicia consider her to be blessed by the results of her transplant – while other pediatric transplant patients typically take up to seven pills every day, Shantel only takes one, in a low dosage.
“It was amazing how life just turned around and said ‘you’re the ones that need a transplant,’” Alicia said. “God knows everything.”
Shantel, like other students in Texas, has been attending school from home because of the coronavirus. Being a transplant patient, she has a lower immune system, so it’s been tough having to stay inside.
“We have to be extra careful,” Shantel said. “They ask us to stay home, and if we need to go to the doctor they’ll bring a nurse to our house to check on us – we’ve adapted to it, but it’s been really hard.”
A volunteer with the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance, Shantel has spoken with countless doctors and other patients, giving testimony on her and her family’s experience.
“It’s a pleasure sharing my story,” Shantel said. “There’s a day specially for us and the donor family where we get to release balloons in the air, and I’ve also had the chance to sing a song I wrote in an event for donor families.”
During their interview, Shantel and Alicia made it clear that they consider her donor family to be just that – their family.
“We’re very grateful,” Shantel said. “They gave me that second chance, and I’ve been writing to them, we’ve been communicating through letters. I’m hoping that one day we’ll get to meet each other. That’s the next step.”
With her sights set on the future, Shantel plans to become a multi-organ transplant surgeon specializing in pediatrics for others who are in need, like she was.
“I want to be able to help save other people’s lives,” Shantel said. “I want to be able to give them that second chance that I was able to receive, and discover new things. There’s people in need.”
Alicia was with her older daughter, who was 18 at the time, when they got the news that Shantel would be receiving a liver from a donor. She gets goosebumps recalling the mixed emotions she was met with as a mother.
“We were sad for the other family who lost their baby, that’s what broke us down, thinking about how hurt the other family was,” Alicia said. “But we were grateful that Shantel was going to be able to continue to live because of their decision.”
Alicia knew that her younger daughter had a whole life ahead of her.
“She was a baby, and they have so much ahead of them,” Alicia said. “It’s hard. We’ll be grateful for the rest of our lives.”
Seeing her daughter grow up has been an amazing experience.
“She has been a normal baby, a normal child, a normal teenager – it’s been wonderful to see how she’s been able to accomplish everything and see all the desires of her heart and what she wants to do,” Alicia said. “We’re always going to be behind her. We’ve been happy to see her grow like this, it’s been the best thing in our lives. She’s got her dad very wrapped around her finger.”
Shantel wanted to stress that it’s important to donate, and said again that she and her family are incredibly grateful for the opportunities she has had thanks to organ donation.
Texans can register as organ donors at the Texas Department of Public Safety or the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. For information on organ donation, community initiatives or to register online, visit TOSA1.org.