TAMPA — When Enock Mezilas received the news, he hugged and kissed his mother. He begged her not to cry. The 20-year-old calmly anticipated a nine-hour surgery that would begin late Friday night at Tampa General Hospital. He was ready for his lung transplant, his only chance to live.
Not long ago, this moment seemed impossibly out of reach.
His family couldn't afford the $10,000 needed to save his life until the community rallied in support. Within a week of his story appearing in the St. Petersburg Times, tbt* and on tampabay.com, the newspapers' website, more than $93,000 poured into a fund for his transplant-related expenses.
It was more than enough to put Mezilas on the wait list for a lung donor. Yet twice last week, just as he thought he had a match, transplants fell through at the last minute. Then late Friday, lungs from an out-of-state donor received final approval.
As his surgery began at 10:30 p.m., his mother, Ilna Pierre, began her vigil in the hospital's waiting room. Between calls to her husband, back home in Fort Lauderdale caring for their two younger children, she prayed unceasingly.
"My heart was beating so fast, she said later. "I didn't sleep all night."
At 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Mezilas left the operating room with his new lungs.
His condition remained critical Saturday, which was to be expected, said hospital spokesman John Dunn. His blood pressure had been up and down all day, said his mother, who had not been able to talk to him.
But she was hopeful that the worst of their long ordeal was over.
Mezilas' parents — his mother is a home health aide, his father works in maintenance at an assisted living facility — have health insurance that covered their son's transplant surgery. But the co-pay for the anti-rejection drugs, which he must take for the rest of his life, was so high they needed additional financial assistance before he could qualify for the surgery.
Mezilas couldn't get public health benefits because he had his green card for only one year. His parents, originally from Haiti, immigrated legally from the Bahamas when he was 9. But until he became sick — his lungs were irreparably damaged by severe acid reflux that was misdiagnosed for years — they didn't realize that their child needed a green card to qualify for government relief.
They ended up in Tampa because the family's insurance wouldn't cover the surgery at the transplant center closest to their South Florida home. It did provide benefits at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, where he came close to getting new lungs, but the donor wasn't an acceptable match. By the time he got to Tampa, he was so sick that doctors said he would die during this hospital visit without a transplant.
No one knows how high his medical expenses could climb. Just the co-pay for his anti-rejection drugs could run $300 to $600 each month. His mother will have to live with him in Tampa for the next three months, and then Mezilas must return to Tampa General every four weeks for the first year.
The family thanked the hundreds of people who donated to them through the National Transplant Assistance Fund. The nonprofit organization will administer the money to ensure it is used for transplant-related expenses, generally to be paid directly to the service providers.
Despite the severity of his condition, Mezilas managed recently to earn his high school diploma, mostly by studying at home. He hopes to become a pharmacist some day.
But for now, his mother said, the goals are far more immediate. Saturday night, she said her husband had just arrived in Tampa, and they were looking forward to seeing their son open his eyes.
Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.