LiveOnNY pushes New Yorkers to become registered organ donors with campaign featuring 3-year-old recipient, 30-year-old on waiting list
Every morning, Dashia McLeod awakes and awaits the call that will make her a survivor — and not a statistic.
It’s been 27 months. Her phone has yet to ring.
The vivacious 30-year-old Harlem woman, who landed on the waitlist for a heart transplant in February 2014, finds herself flashing forward to the long-delayed day when the news of her new organ comes.
“All the time, all the time,” she confesses with a laugh. “I wonder, ‘Am I going to cry? What time will the phone ring? Is it going to be 3 o’clock in the morning? Am I going to miss the call?’ ”
Little Matilda Smith is the yin to McLeod’s yang.
Now a healthy 3-year-old, Matilda became one of the youngest transplant recipients ever in New York State when a donated liver saved her life on Nov. 2, 2012.
Her relieved and excited parents brought their daughter home 72 days after they rushed her in an ambulance from upstate New York to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.
“We don’t look back on the experience in a sad way at all,” mom Kelly Smith recalls of those 10 life-changing weeks. “It was a really beautiful and happy time in our lives.”
Matilda and McLeod are partners in an ongoing series of ads, launched by the federally designated organ procurement organization LiveOnNY, encouraging New Yorkers to give the gift of life.
“In 2012, she needed a new liver,” reads the message beneath a Times Square billboard showing the pigtailed Matilda. “In 2016, she just needs a nap. Organ donation is beautiful.”
The message behind LiveOnNY’s campaign is literally about life and death.
There’s an organ donation crisis in New York State, which ranks 50th — dead last nationwide — in the percentage of eligible residents who are registered donors.
Roughly nine New Yorkers a week, about one every 18 hours, die while waiting for an organ. There are about 10,000 people currently waiting for a lifesaving donation.
The math is cruel, but reversible.
LiveOnNY has helped save more than 20,000 lives through organ donation since 1978, and improved a half million more through tissue donation.
“We’ve made great strides over the years, but we must continually strive to educate the public about the gift of life and to sign up on the New York State registry,” said Helen Irving, the president and CEO of LiveOnNY.
Kelly Smith echoed her call.
“Organ donation is so important,” says the grateful mother. “It lets me hold my Matilda every day — to hug her, to kiss her, to watch her grow.”
It was a selfless Missouri mother who saved Matilda. The woman donated the liver of her lost 2-week-old infant to the New York child. Seven other recipients benefited from her difficult decision.
McLeod hopes there’s a generous someone out there for her as well.
Born in the Bronx, she arrived hale and healthy — until her life changed dramatically at 18 months with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
The feisty toddler, with the aid of chemotherapy, beat the disease. But the cure came with a cost.
When McLeod was 11, she began struggling with debilitating bouts of fatigue. It turned out the cancer treatment led to a heart condition, although she couldn’t foresee the future.
“I knew what was going on, but I didn’t know I was going to have these kind of problems,” she said. “I thought I’d be taking oral meds the rest of my life, but I’d get through it. Now I see it’s much bigger than that.”
McLeod battled bravely through her problems, earning a college degree and working as an intern for hip-hop impresario Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs.
These days, McLeod is forced to work from home and makes regular visits to New York-Presbyterian Hospital. A month ago, surgeons implanted an LVAD — left ventricular assist device — to keep her heart pumping.
Family and friends offer McLeod steady support and positive thoughts. When she’s home alone, she reads a lot of self-help books and listens to gospel music.
And she waits.
“I’m still living my life,” McLeod said. “I still enjoy life. When I get the call, I get the call. Just waiting, that’s all.”
Kelly Smith remembers the night when her wait came to an end. Their 6-pound daughter appeared doomed, with her hospital room taking on a funereal air.
She and her husband, Tyler, were there when Dr. Sander Florman arrived out of the blue about 10:30 p.m. with the good news. Barely a week after the surgery, the family was headed home to upstate Canton and a reunion with their 2-year-old son.
Matilda and her mother stopped into Manhattan last month for a visit with the staff at Mount Sinai and a trip to see the Broadway show “Matilda.” The little girl is just starting to ask questions about her scar.
“She has no idea that she almost died several times,” says Kelly Smith. “Or that she was holding on for her life. But she has the right spirit. She’s a determined little girl, with a fiery light in her eyes.”
Native New Yorker McLeod is planning a bigger trip than Broadway with her new heart: a vacation in Dubai. Or maybe Paris. Either way, she’s looking forward to the ride.
“So many places to see,” she says. “I probably won’t ever be home.”
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