Next year, Shantel Garza will be the age her older brother was when he died after not receiving a heart transplant.
As someone living because of a liver transplant she received at 10 months old, the 15-year-old has devoted her life to living the way her brother Caleb did: fearlessly and selflessly.
For Shantel, this means aspiring to be a multi-organ donor transplant surgeon.
“I was saved through a family’s choice to help me and a doctor who also did what they could to help me get the transplant,” the Palmview resident said. “So how could I not try to do the same thing for other families?”
As a freshman at La Joya Early College High School, Shantel hopes to attend Texas A&M University in College Station. She said she had a special relationship with Caleb, since they both struggled through medical complications and were the youngest in the family, and that she misses him every day. She was 11 when he died.
When Alicia Garza was pregnant with Caleb, her fourth child, she said doctors told her that he had a bad heart and was not expected to survive a day. Caleb was diagnosed with pulmonary atresia, meaning that a vital part of his heart was deformed.
“But with God on his side, and with his strong faith, he was stronger than any expectation they gave him,” Alicia said of her son, who she remembers as a faithful stronghold for her family of six.
Caleb did defy those prospects and went on to live 16 years after. He had his first surgery to reconstruct his heart at 7 days old, and in his lifetime, endured seven open heart surgeries, and several valve and tissue transplants. His mother said Caleb is the personification of resilience, as he was deeply rooted in faith.
Her son’s trust in God was evident in his prayers, Alicia said. A local chaplain would visit him often at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where Caleb spent his last eight months as a patient in 2016, and asked if he had any prayer requests.
“Could you pray for my neighbor next door? She needs a lung transplant,” Alicia recalled her son saying.
“Caleb knew he was going to die if he did not get a new heart,” she later added. “But Caleb was never selfish. He always thought of others and was always so giving — despite him needing a prayer, he wanted prayers given to others.”
In 2012, Caleb contracted whooping cough, and two years later, developed lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. This made him ineligible for a transplant, which he urgently needed since his heart was becoming weaker by the day. A few months before turning 16, Caleb was admitted to the Houston hospital, where his family spent their remaining moments with their youngest brother.
Alicia remembers Caleb’s joy while watching the Denver Broncos defeat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, while inside his hospital room. Born in Denver, Caleb was a devoted Broncos fan. The room was full of family and nurses that evening, and Alicia laughed while recalling how Caleb was so excited watching his team secure its championship that night that he went into cardiac arrest. Once nurses stabilized him, everyone came back to the room to finish the game.
That hospital room is also where Caleb sang his last worship songs with his family. Caleb loved to serenade his nurses with his guitar. He even taught Shantel how to play.
Through the Make-A-Wish foundation in the Rio Grande Valley, Caleb received two guitars and drums, which are now being used by the worship team of the Spanish Assembly of God in Palmview, where Shantel sings.
“Caleb taught us to be strong, he taught the whole family how to trust God in the good times and in the bad times,” Alicia said. “He taught us to never doubt or question God.”
The entire Garza family is registered as organ donors.
Around 2,000 children are on the national transplant waiting list, with one-fourth of them under 5 years old, according to the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance.
Shantel was born five years after Caleb, and when Alicia found out that her 2-month-old newborn was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis, a chronic disease that leads to failure of the organ, she said that “it felt like the whole world collapsed on me.”
Shantel was put on the pediatric liver transplant list, and doctors told Alicia that it could take about two years for their turn to be matched — but according to doctors, Shantel could only wait months.
“What could we do? They said it could take two years, but that wait would put her on a higher risk of dying, of just waiting on that list,” Alicia said.
Shantel’s older sister, Amanda, volunteered to donate part of her liver to her sister, but a few days before they were planning to head to the hospital, they received word that Shantel was a match to a pediatric donor. Some donations can be made between adults and children, but a transplant with a pediatric donor for children in need of new organs makes for higher survival rates.
Alicia remembers being relieved that her daughter would receive a liver transplant, but her feelings were bittersweet.
“It was so many emotions mixed at the same time because how could we be happy knowing that someone was losing their loved one?” Alica said. “I feel for the family that lost their loved one, but we are happy that they made the right decision because my daughter’s life was saved.”
The Garza family stays in touch with Shantel’s donor family, exchanging Christmas cards and letters often. Shantel wrote a song for the family and hopes to sing it to them one day.
One thing Shantel remembers about Caleb, besides his lighthearted and silly spirit, is how caring he was. He told her to “not get more sick, or else I would get in trouble by him.”
Though, Caleb knew more than anyone how little control one has under health complications.
Before being admitted to the Houston hospital, Caleb did not have a chance to get baptized, but really wanted to. So, in his hospital room, a local chaplain brought a special bowl from their church to baptize Caleb. It was the first time the bowl was used.
Shantel encourages others to register to be organ donors.
“It’s hard knowing that you are losing someone you love,” she said. “But in your heart, know that you’re saving someone else’s life.”