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Spring 1998
To Save Two Lives
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Hernandez began feeling sick, gradually. In June 1991, he became noticeably worse. He was tired all the time. He was losing weight and began vomiting blood. His family grew alarmed and, since they had no physician of their own, they took Hernandez to a nearby hospital. After examining him, the doctors asked Mrs. Hernandez if her husband drank. “That came as a shock,” says Angel Hernandez Jr., a sweet 19-year-old who serves as translator for his Mexican-born parents. The physicians concluded Hernandez was an alcoholic. His family knew he was not.

Diagnosed with a stomach ulcer, Hernandez was sent home. He unsuccessfully looked for work: no one would hire him because of his illness. His wife, Zenaida, a tiny woman whose long brown hair is streaked with gray, became the family breadwinner. She flipped hamburgers at Carl’s Jr. and, as a licensed day-care worker, cared for two small children in the Hernandez’ modest Boyle Heights home.

In October 1997, Hernandez was admitted to Pacific Medical Center, in Chinatown. Following a battery of tests, the doctors had disturbing news. “That’s when we found out he had hepatitis,” recalls Angel.

In late October, Hernandez was hospitalized again, his condition now critical. He could die at any time, his family was told. To Angel, who attends classes at East Los Angeles College and hopes to enter the medical profession, the idea of losing his gentle father was unfathomable. “I thought, ‘He’s never going to meet his grandchildren.’ And I was worried about my little brother, Alvaro.”

The family now had one option: a liver transplant. In December, Hernandez was transferred to UCLA, evaluated by Busuttil and his team, and placed on the national waiting list for a donor liver. But his health was rapidly deteriorating. If a liver didn’t become available soon, he would be too ill to risk the arduous surgery. “He was in dreadful condition,” recalls Busuttil. “He probably had two or three days to live.”

On January 7, at 3 in the morning, the family got the call they’d been praying for: a liver had become available. They rushed to UCLA, only to be disappointed because the donor liver was found to be unsuitable. But the next day, around noon, UCLA phoned again: Another liver had been identified and this one was almost certainly healthy.


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