An Important Gift
John Nuñez was the youngest of six siblings and it was his brother, Steve Nuñez, who lived with him toward the end of his life.
"He came to live with me and stayed with me until he died," said Nuñez. "It was a hard life for him, but he had a big heart, lots of friends, and was always tied to the family no matter what went on in his life. He was always there."
John was diagnosed with cancer and prior to that had lost his first wife to breast cancer.
Before his passing in 2009, John had conversations with his brother about the possibility of making a donation if he was unable to beat the cancer.
The donation would be his corneas, the eye's outermost layer. Nuñez works as an Eye Bank Liaison for the New Mexico Lions Eye Bank. He educates the public and families about tissue donations such as the corneas.
"When John came to live with me, we actually sat down and had a conversation about donation," said Nuñez. "He said ‘I know I'm sick and there's probably nothing they are going to want to use, but if there's anything I can donate then I want to do that.'"
Those with cancer are still able to donate tissues like the corneas and that is what Nuñez wants people to understand.
"There's really two sides to the story," said Nuñez. "One of them is organ donation and the other is tissue donation. Almost anybody can be a tissue donor. The criteria for being a donor can vary because every year they're making new advances on what they can accept and use from tissue donors, but these are life-saving gifts."
Nuñez's connection to the Eye Bank started back when he worked at the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI).
A UNM graduate, Nuñez obtained a clerical job at OMI right out of college and worked his way up to a lead investigator. He worked at OMI for 25 years.
After retiring, Nuñez went to work for the New Mexico Donor Services which is an organ and tissue donation program. That's where he made his connection with the Eye Bank.
"About two years of working with donor services is when John died," said Nuñez. "When he died, my world changed and I didn't need to keep on working. So I stopped and took a little hiatus. A few months ago I was approached by the executive director of the Eye Bank and she asked me if I would do some part-time work for them."
With his liaison position, Nuñez talks to numerous groups about the importance of tissue and cornea donation and has maintained a close relationship with OMI to keep that door open for possible donations.
"OMI does anywhere from 80 plus referrals every year," said Nuñez. "That means 80 people who are potential donors and out of those 80 people we can sometimes get two corneas. We're talking about 160 people a year who are impacted by being given the gift of sight just by what OMI does. OMI's role is so important in working with programs like ours."
Donation procedures are often associated with hospitals since that is where organ donations and referrals mostly occur, but the Eye Bank and OMI have been working together to make sure they are not missing any referrals from OMI investigators.
Amy Wyman, an investigator at OMI, has been the Eye Bank's primary contact in helping the program reach other investigators and letting them know about the referral process for tissue donations.
"Not every decedent can be a donor due to their medical condition, trauma or extended time since death," said Wyman. "However, OMI fully supports donation, and we make every effort to assist the Eye Bank and families on a daily basis."
John's corneas went to two different people.
"Generally, we don't tell people who the recipients are," said Nuñez. "If a donor's family wants to know where the tissue went or where the corneas went, we ask them to write a letter requesting that information and we'll send that letter to the recipients. In our case with John, I know who the recipients are since I work for the Eye Bank, but the rest of our family is fine with not knowing."
John's family is getting a chance to recognize his life and donation through a very interesting project with Donate Life and the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California.
On December 5, Nuñez and other family members gathered in Albuquerque with representatives from OMI to honor John and finish his floragraph which was placed on the Donate Life Rose Parade float for the January 1, 2013 parade in Pasadena.
A floragraph is a portrait made out of grains, flowers, seeds and other organic materials.
Each year, Donate Life honors organ, eye and tissue donors through these floragraphs.
The honoree's floragraph is decorated in Pasadena and then sent to the respective families for them to complete the portrait at a local finishing event before the parade.
"He's always with us one way or another," said Nuñez. "It's a nice way for us to all get together and think about him, remember him, talk about his life, and the gift he provided after his death."
For more information on the New Mexico Lions Eye Bank, visit www.nmleb.org.
For more information on the Donate Life and Rose Parade project, visit www.donatelifefloat.org.