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Organ donor honored at hospital ceremony

Leigh Black Irvin
lirvin@daily-times.com

FARMINGTON — The San Juan Regional Medical Center and New Mexico Donor Services joined forces to organize a ceremony today honoring the late Jasper Yazzie, whose organ donations helped save the life of a relative and four other people.

Jade Yazzie, second from left, Takota Yazzie and Franky Yazzie hug family members Wednesday after a ceremony honoring organ donor Jasper Yazzie at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington.

During the ceremony this afternoon, Yazzie’s wife, Tenaj Yazzie, and three daughters, Takota, Jade and Franky Yazzie, tearfully put the finishing touches on a floragraph of Yazzie. A floragraph is a picture made out of organic material such as seeds and coffee grounds. The floragraph will be part of the “Donate Life” float that will be included in the Tournament of Roses Parade on Jan. 2 in Pasadena, Calif.

Yazzie’s death was the result of a car accident Sept. 10. Because he had checked the organ donor box on his driver’s license, some of his organs and tissues were harvested.

Coincidentally, one of Yazzie’s relatives, 61-year-old Clifford Werito, was on the waiting list for a kidney. Yazzie’s wife, Tenaj, is Werito’s daughter’s maternal cousin.

During the ceremony, Werito described how he became ill and, beginning in 2010, needed to undergo kidney dialysis.

“The doctors placed me on a kidney transplant list. I found out Jasper was a donor, and they asked if I could use a kidney. I cried when I heard I was a match," an emotional Werito said today. "I thank you, Jasper, and the great ones, and God.”

Organ recipient Clifford Werito speaks to family members and friends Wednesday  during a ceremony for donor Jasper Yazzie at the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington.

Werito also thanked Yazzie’s family, adding that he feels especially lucky to have received the kidney because Navajos don’t often donate organs due to their cultural beliefs.

Dave Comfort of New Mexico Donor Services said his agency is grateful for its partnership with the San Juan Regional Medical Center, adding that Yazzie’s other organs — including his other kidney, liver, heart, lungs and corneas — helped save four other lives and gave sight to two individuals.

“(Donors) give people the incredible gift of life,” he said. “Jasper is forever a hero to these people and this community.”

Wes Brown of the Farmington Lions Club presented Yazzie’s family with a check covering travel expenses so they will be able to attend the parade in January.

Following the ceremony, Maria Sanders, spokeswoman for New Mexico Donor Services, said finding Native American organ donors can be a challenge.

“There’s such a high incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure among Native Americans,” she said. “Native American people think it’s against their beliefs, but at the same time, there’s such a need. We encourage more Native Americans to become donors,” she said.

Jade Yazzie applies paste to a floragraph of her father, the late Jasper Yazzie, Wednesday during a ceremony at the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington.

Sanders explained that when a donation match is being sought, medical professionals try to find the best tissue match. Native American tissue is a better genetic match for another Native than non-Native tissue, she said.

After the ceremony, Werito said he changed his mind about becoming an organ donor because of the way it not only saved, but changed, his life. Before his surgery, Werito couldn’t walk 500 feet and was unable to work. After receiving the new kidney, however, he was able to return to his job conducting surveys as an archaeologist for an anthropological and environmental services company.

Werito said when he was renewing his driver’s license this year, he decided to become a donor himself.

“I never did believe (in donation) before because of my cultural beliefs. I always thought I would go with everything God and the great spirits had given me. But after receiving the new kidney, it changed my beliefs, and I became a new organ donor,” he said. “It’s a great gift of life, and I wanted to help someone else like Jasper did,” he said.

Those wishing to become organ donors can sign up at the donor registry at nmdonor.org or at the Motor Vehicle Division when renewing their driver’s license.

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.