She’ll die without a liver transplant. Being undocumented got her denied, ACLU says

An Oregon woman who is undocumented was denied a liver transplant by Oregon Health & Sciences University because she lacked “legal presence,” but the hospital has now reversed its policy.
An Oregon woman who is undocumented was denied a liver transplant by Oregon Health & Sciences University because she lacked “legal presence,” but the hospital has now reversed its policy. Screenshot from GoFundMe

It was a death sentence, advocates said.

Silvia Lesama-Santos, a 46-year-old woman living in Portland, Oregon, was told Monday she wouldn’t be considered for a liver transplant by the Oregon Health & Science University, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The hospital’s reasoning? Lesama-Santos, a mother of four children who has lived in the Portland area for 30 years, is an undocumented immigrant.

Lesama-Santos had health insurance through her husband’s employer — and the hospital acknowledged as much in its letter rejecting her from transplant consideration. But that wasn’t enough to meet the hospital’s transplant requirements, the hospital said Monday.

“OHSU requires proof of lawful presence for transplant services,” the hospital wrote in a letter telling Lesama-Santos that she doesn’t meet the requirements to even be considered for the life-saving transplant.

After the denial, immigrants rights advocates quickly leaped into action and put pressure on the hospital.

The hospital’s “policy of denying life-saving medical care based on immigration status is cruel and inhumane,” Mat dos Santos, legal director at the ACLU of Oregon, said in a statement. “We are looking into whether OHSU’s denial violates federal or state laws, but there is no question that OHSU’s policy goes against the spirit of equal protection.”

That pressure led the hospital to terminate its policy the same day the ACLU brought Lesama-Santos’ rejection to light, KPTV reports.

The hospital released a statement explaining its change.

“It was brought to our attention this evening that an archaic transplant policy was preventing an undocumented individual from being evaluated at OHSU,” the statement said. “Upon learning of the policy, OHSU leaders acted immediately and terminated the policy. We deeply regret the pain this has caused the family.”

Even with the policy reversal, Lesama-Santos remains in critical condition — and getting a liver transplant “is her only chance at survival,” according to a GoFundMe page raising money for the family’s medical expenses.

Her children are 4, 13, 14 and 21 years old.

“We don't know what we’d do without her,” Ivan Gonzalez Lesama, her 21-year-old son, wrote on the GoFundMe page.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the GoFundMe had raised just over $1,000 towards its $10,000 goal.

On Wednesday, the Oregonian reports, “They also learned they were accepted to a hospital in Seattle,” ACLU spokesperson Sarah Armstrong told the newspaper.

Lesama-Santos may not be healthy enough to make the journey from Portland to Seattle, Armstrong told the newspaper. She may not even be fit for a transplant as OHSU once the hospital begins considering her.

The ACLU had set up a petition calling on the hospital to change its policy. On Wednesday, after OHSU changed its rule, the organization changed the petition’s goal.

“After we shared Silvia's story, OHSU immediately changed their inhumane policy barring undocumented people from receiving organ transplants,” the petition reads. “We are now asking all Oregon hospitals to change their policies.”

The ACLU’s legal team is checking whether there are any similar policies that could impact undocumented patients, KATU reports.

OHSU, too, said it’s working to audit its own policies: “OHSU’s legal team has begun a system-wide audit to ensure no other such policies exist,” the hospital said in a statement.