Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Miriam Garcia was one of twenty-one brothers and sisters in a family that, by design, reinforced the values of caring and support. She grew up healthy, worked to support her family, married a man with her surname, Domingo Garcia, and had three children of her own. Her firstborn, a baby girl named Yasmin, as well as her son, Dominie, who followed, were both healthy children. Her third child, Carlos, was not as fortunate. "We were told that his condition occurred once in a million births and that he was so severely disabled that his life expectancy was day-to-day," she said, seated in her Sleepy Hollow apartment.
Those sobering words were spoken sixteen years ago and the commitment shown to Carlos by his mother has never faltered.
Top Photo: Carlos Garcia (center) with his family (l to r) Dominie, Yasmin, Miriam, and Domingo
A commitment that brought her to the Westchester Medical Center from Puerto Rico when Carlos was 2 years old and weighed only eleven pounds. "I was very lucky that my pediatrician in Puerto Rico coordinated everything for me, and he did so in two days. In May of 1992 I arrived at the New York airport with Carlos, my eight year-old daughter and four year-old son. I didn’t speak a word of English. An ambulance was waiting to take Carlos to the Westchester Medical Center. At the time he wasn’t eating and had great difficulty breathing," Miriam recalled. "I was so happy to have Carlos cared for but I quickly began to miss my family, and when we moved to a little apartment on Clinton Street, I felt very alone," she added. The severity of Carlos’s condition, along with blindness and the inability to eat without the aid of a feeding tube, has meant around-the-clock care. His life is as tenuous today as it was when his mother first brought him to the United States. "I have never been back to Puerto Rico to see my family, because Carlos cannot make the trip and I won’t leave him alone," Miriam said, tearfully. "I could never forgive myself if something happened to him and I wasn’t around," she added. And yet, until recently, it looked more and more like Miriam might not be around to care for Carlos or her other children.
On June 26, 2004 Miriam Garcia took an over-the-counter pain medication that she had taken before without any side effects. This day would prove different and the pain medication would alter her life and those around her in unimaginable ways. "Within a half-hour of taking the pill I felt sick. I lay down on the couch and didn’t wake up. What I do remember about that time is seeing myself flying away.
I could hear the doctor telling my family that I was dying. I heard my daughter Yasmin praying to God for me to live. Then God spoke to me telling me to go back, that I could not come to Him now, and I awoke," she said. One month had passed at the Westchester Medical Center. I had had two major surgeries, lost almost all of my skin, and would find myself back in the hospital eleven times over the months that followed," she said.
In May of 2005 her situation went from the proverbial bad to worse. Her doctor told her that her liver was failing and that she needed a transplant if she was to live. Her weight steadily declined from 165 lbs. and dipped to as low as 80 lbs. "I was so afraid. I didn’t know what would happen to my children if I died. I prayed every day asking God to let me stay with them, to not leave them alone," she said.
Once again a window of opportunity opened in Miriam Garcia’s life. She became a candidate for a liver transplant at the Westchester Medical Center. In addition to the dedicated physicians on the transplant ward, Miriam was introduced to Gerald Barbalet, a lifelong resident of Tarrytown and a liver transplant recipient. He visited Miriam and helped her to understand the process she would be undergoing. He was well-versed on the Medical Center, having undergone his operation and recuperation there. He was upbeat and unconditional in his support for her, and his encouragement lifted her spirits at a time when her life was slipping away. In fact, Mr. Barbalet has made a point of talking to and becoming active in the lives of those awaiting liver transplants. He has become an active member in the Transplant Support Organization (TSO) that serves the Bronx, Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess Counties. Miriam would later say that his visits meant a great deal to her and gave her hope.
That hope became a reality this past July when her son Dominie picked up their phone and was told to bring his mother immediately to the Westchester Medical Center. There she received a liver transplant. Tears came back into her eyes as she recounted the warmth and caring that surrounded her at the Westchester Medical Center’s Organ Transplant Wing. "Everyone has been so kind to me and so helpful. I am so fortunate," she said, seated next to her wheelchair-bound son, Carlos. "I am back with my family."
Recently, Miriam Garcia was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and her tremulous hands indicate that once again she will be asked to deal with adversity and find a way to cope and manage her life. She is by nature a cheerful and gracious woman, acutely aware of the generosity of someone who died and wanted their organs to provide life to others. "I am very lucky to be here and to be with my family," she said in a most sincere manner. At forty-three she feels blessed and profoundly grateful.