Heart recipient adopts second mission: Advocating for organ, tissue donation

Vickie Figeroa stands in front of several pews and stained glass windows

“I always tell people to sign up,” Grosse Pointe Woods woman says

Vickie Figueroa makes her living ensuring that people of Black, Hispanic and Native American heritage are included in the Catholic Church and cared for spiritually.

The associate director of cultural ministries for the Archdiocese of Detroit, Figueroa spends her spare time in a different kind of outreach: She advocates for organ and tissue donation and encourages minorities to sign up on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.

“I’m definitely a believer in organ transplant. There are so many different ways one person’s organs and tissue can help so many different people,” she said. “I always tell people to sign up, to add their name to the Donor Registry.”

That is also a goal of National Donor Day, which is observed on Feb. 14 every year. Initiated in 1998, National Donor Day is dedicated to spreading awareness and education about organ, eye and tissue donation, and also celebrates those who have provided or received the gift of life. More than 100,000 people are waiting for an organ in the U.S., including nearly 2,400 here in Michigan.

Not only is Figueroa a believer in organ and tissue donation, she’s living proof of the benefits it provides. After a decade of heart problems, the Grosse Pointe Woods resident received a new heart in 2021. She started experiencing symptoms of heart failure when she was 47. Before that, she was always active, usually walking several days a week. She belonged to a walking club and took aerobics classes.

“One day I noticed that I had a hard time keeping up in class and with other walkers,” said Figueroa, now 57. “I assumed my asthma had returned.”

She went from strong and active to having a hard time walking across the parking lot at work. She even altered her recipes based on the distance she was willing to walk through the grocery store. Bringing her groceries up to her second-floor apartment sometimes took an hour.

When doctors told her she needed a new heart, her initial reaction was guilt.

“There’s no such thing as a living heart donor,” she said. “A family has to lose a loved one. I thought: What kind of person hopes for a heart?”

She was placed on the transplant waiting list early in April and the generous gift of a heart was donated in July. Her transplant was performed on July 24, 2021. Figueroa was walking around five days later. Figueroa hasn’t had to return to the hospital since. She’s back at her job, helping people, staying active, and walking almost as often as she did before her symptoms slowed her down. She’s hoping to reach out to her donor’s family, too, so she can let them know how their loved one saved and changed her life.

“I do want to thank them. The past year-and-a-half has been great for me, just to be able to do the little things,” she said. “I no longer dread trash day – that was a 30-minute ordeal for me. I don’t mind walking from the parking lot to the office anymore.”

For more information or to sign up as a donor, visit golm.org/register.

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