TAMPA — An outpouring of community support has raised $40,000 for a 20-year-old patient at Tampa General Hospital who will die without a lung transplant that his family couldn't afford.
Enock Mezilas, the soft-spoken young man who last week completed his high school diploma as he was fighting for his life, now has enough money to be placed on the transplant waiting list at Tampa General Hospital.
More than 100 donors contributed whatever they could — $50, $250, $1,000. Some went around their offices rallying support; others offered to host car washes. At least one and perhaps two donors gave $10,000 in honor of Mezilas, whose story appeared in Thursday's St. Petersburg Times and tbt*, and on tampabay.com, the newspaper's website.
In a single day, the community raised four times the amount that hospital officials determined his family would need to afford medications and other expenses associated with his immediate aftercare.
The response floored Mezilas' family, his medical team — even the national foundation administering the fund for his expenses, which had never seen so much generated from a single story.
"I am so happy," said his mother, Ilna Pierre, weeping with joy at the news. "I've never had a better day than this."
The critically ill recipient of readers' generosity was "bewildered, but at peace," said his Tampa General transplant physician, Dr. Tarik Haddad. "I am flabbergasted that there's been such a community outpouring."
Mezilas was officially placed on the transplant list Thursday night. He's likely to get high priority status because of the severity of his condition, Haddad said.
The wait for a suitable donor could take hours — or weeks.
But it's a huge step forward for Mezilas, who just a day ago couldn't seek a transplant because his family didn't have the money to afford the aftercare.
It's harsh reality but not uncommon in transplant decisions. Because demand for transplants far exceeds donated organs, part of the calculus about who should get them focuses on resources — including whether a recipient can afford to care for the new organ.
In Mezilas' case, his father's health insurance covers the transplant surgery, but the co-pay for medications is so high the family needs additional financial aid.
The co-pay for antirejection drugs — which must be taken for the rest of his life — could run $300 to $600 each month.
And state or federal assistance wasn't an option because Mezilas has had his green card for only a year. His parents, originally from Haiti, immigrated legally from the Bahamas when he was 9. But the couple didn't realize their child should get a green card, too. Only after he became critically sick did they learn he needed a green card for public health benefits.
Mezilas and his family live in Fort Lauderdale. His father works in maintenance at an assisted living facility; his mother will have to take several months off from her job as a home health aide to care for him during the recovery. The social worker assisting them at Tampa General said they couldn't afford to save their son and still provide food and housing for his two younger siblings.
That is, until so many people stepped up to help.
On Thursday, donations poured in to the National Transplant Assistance Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps families raise money for the medical expenses associated with transplantation. It helps them to pay for everything from medications to expenses incurred by the patient and his caregiver when they have to relocate to be near a transplant center.
Money for Mezilas' care will be kept in a fund, generally to be paid directly to the service providers. The organization closely monitors requests for funding, which must be accompanied by appropriate documentation.
Tampa General also received numerous calls from people who wanted to help, spokesman John Dunn said. Some hospital employees also said they would contribute, as did the spouse of a previous transplant recipient.
And fundraising is not stopping just because the family has met the $10,000 goal required to save Mezilas' life.
Mezilas and his mother will have to live in Tampa for three months after the transplant. Once they return home, he'll have to visit Tampa General every four weeks for the first year.
"We will never, ever know exactly how much the family will need," Haddad said.