A Long Wait

Melvin “Poppy” Pereira is a face of one of the many people who have endured long waits for an organ to become available for transplant.

Irene and Melvin renewed their marriage vows on their 31st wedding anniversary. Four months later “Poppy,” as Melvin was lovingly called by Irene, died of liver failure at age 64.

Theirs was a true love story. They met as co-workers at a nursing home in the 1980s; Irene was an LPN and Melvin was a custodian. He wooed her with his sense of humor and his kindness. Irene affectionately says: “Poppy was the first to give you the shirt off his back…he would help anyone in need.” They married, had three children (Anthony, Justin, and Ann Marie), and lived a very full life in Lawrence, New York. Melvin seemed to devour life. He was an avid fisherman and gardener, had many friends and community connections, and was a former marine and volunteered as a firefighter for 22 years. He also worked as a custodian at the St. Joachim’s Church in Cedarhurst in Long Island.  

A Troubling Diagnosis

The year 2012 proved to be the beginning of a very difficult time for the Pereira family. Melvin was diagnosed with cirrhosis and started a regimen of medications that stabilized his condition. Then “Superstorm Sandy” struck and virtually destroyed their home. Irene, who was being treated for a medical condition, needed to move in with family in another state to recover. While she was away, Melvin and their son Justin worked tirelessly to rebuild their home, and Melvin’s health seemed to buckle under the stress. He became too weak to work so he retired early. He required regular paracentesis (a procedure to remove fluid that has collected in the belly). He was in and out of the hospital due to infections and had many complications.

By Christmas 2012, Melvin was told by his trusted physician, Thomas Schiano, MD, that his liver condition was end stage and he would need a liver transplant within a year. Irene becomes teary when talking about her husband’s physician. “Dr. Schiano was compassionate, caring, and honest with us from the beginning. Melvin had such a great relationship with him. They knew how to communicate with each other.”

The Wait Begins

Melvin was placed on the national wait list for a liver, and the Pereira’s knew Melvin’s only chance to live was to receive a transplant. They had to learn to cope with the uncertainty of when or if an offer would come. Unfortunately, New York State has a very low donor registration rate—one of the lowest in the country—therefore many patients do not survive what can be a long wait for an organ to become available.

To add to the challenge of waiting and coping with the symptoms of Melvin’s illness, the Pereira’s home was still under construction. Melvin and Irene were confined to living in one room, preparing home cooked meals with a toaster. Although the situation could have been disastrous a strong community and support from friends, church, their local fire department, and the Ladies Auxiliary kept them from feeling alone. “So many have been kind and gracious and kept us going.”  

Melvin was called in twice for a potential transplant; they were so close that they packed bags and came to hospital. However, both times they returned home due to issues of compatibility and matching. Those were the most difficult times, and Irene credits Dr. Schiano for encouraging Melvin to keep going.  

Unfortunately, Melvin did not receive a third offer for a transplant and died waiting on December 30, 2013.

Irene and her children want to tell Melvin’s story. They want to keep his spirit alive. Their pain and sense of grief is palpable. They are clearly proud of him and the battle he fought. As Melvin’s son Justin says, “Many wars are fought in this world. They bring pain and sorry to many. My father for a year fought a war within himself. He stood tall and fought til the end. It might not have been in a fire or overseas, but he fought to keep his life and be with his family.”

The Pereira’s also feel compelled to tell the more difficult side of the story of organ donation. They are the faces of the wait—the faces of grief as a result of the shortage of organ donors. While they can’t save their loved one they can hopefully help save someone else’s “Poppy” by sharing their story and encouraging more interest in organ donation.