Ten years ago, Roxanne Watson underwent a life-changing experience: a heart transplant.
The Nanuet resident worked in retail for years and was a veteran of the aches and pains associated with the job. She went to Nyack Hospital in 2006 after pains in her back and her left side—pains she thought were caused from lifting boxes at work—wouldn’t subside. That’s when Watson got a diagnosis she was not expecting: her symptoms were the result of a “silent” heart attack.
Watson soon found herself in the Cardiac Critical Care Unit at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. “After nine days, my cardiologist gave me the bad news– and the good news: my heart was failing, but I would be placed on the transplant list.” Two years after her initial diagnosis, she started losing weight rapidly and was hospitalized again in Montefiore’s CCCU, where she remained for weeks waiting for a donor.
Watson experienced what she calls “three dry runs” with potential donors that did not materialize during her long stay in hospital. When Coast Guard fireman Michael Bovill suffered a fatal head injury after a motorcycle accident on the George Washington Bridge in 2011, the 25-year-old became the fourth potential donor—and Watson’s life saver. “In Michael’s passing, he saved five people. I had been in Montefiore 104 days—a record. After the surgery, I made another record—I was out of the hospital in nine days.” A week after she was released, Watson was back at Montefiore—only this time, it was for an event. “We got 20 people signed up that day to become organ donors.”
Six months after her transplant, Watson was contacted by Oprah Winfrey’s show, presumably to encourage other people of color to become organ donors. Much to her surprise—and gratitude—her donor’s parents and family members, along with “Oprah’s All-Stars” — Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Suzie Orman and Gayle King— were on the show, too. “Michael’s parents, grandmother, aunt and his three sisters came out on the stage. There were just tears. They were so proud of the work I was doing—and Michael’s dad said his son’s decision to be a donor was a gift from God we are all going to enjoy, and that I was meant to have Michael’s heart. For his family, it seemed fitting that their son, even in death, continued to save lives.” Watson has paid Bovill’s life-saving gift to her forward ever since and remains in touch with his family.
For more than a decade, Watson has worked to educate the public about organ donation and shared her experiences as a transplant patient with those who faced a similar dilemma. Working with Live On New York (www.liveonny.org)—an organ procurement organization that covers Rockland, Orange, Pike, Westchester and all five boroughs of New York City, Watson travels to schools and colleges—and wherever else she’s asked to speak. 4,000 students at Rockland Community College became organ donors during one campaign. To date, she has encouraged 12,000 members of the Rockland/Orange community to become donors. “It’s isn’t in the Guiness Book of World Records—but to date, we haven’t found anyone who has signed up that many people!”
Her weekly radio show on WRCR every Wednesday morning at 9:15 gives Watson an opportunity to advocate for organ donation and to talk to callers about their own experiences—and answer their questions—about what she experienced as a transplant patient. “People don’t want to hear what doctors say—they want to know what to expect they will go through. The best stories come from the patients –and their caregivers — who have gone through it.”
Most importantly, says Watson, choosing to become an organ donor is something every person should decide while they are healthy. “It’s a decision you do not want to put your family in the middle of—in hospital, every patient is asked if they want to donate. But if the patient cannot answer, it is up to the families to make the decision—and that’s something very difficult to deal with when the loved one is dying.”
Watson’s mission is all about education. “I answer questions all the time. I’m not a doctor or nurse, but I know enough about the process to tell them what’s going to happen—just as I learned as it went along. If someone asks me a question I don’t have an answer to, I make sure I get one.” Watson is working to raise awareness in New York, which has one of the country’s largest populations —but the lowest number of registered organ donors.
The bottom line? “If you want to say no, just say no,” said Watson. “But say something…that way, your family is not left standing there trying to make a decision if you’re unable to. One thing I can say with surety: you won’t meet anyone who has seen a loved one saved as a result of a transplant who is not forever grateful to their donor.”
Watson has her table set up on the third floor of the Palisades Mall every Saturday and Sunday in December (near Hagan Dazs) and is meeting and greeting shoppers, offering information on giving something that will last well beyond the holiday season and doesn’t cost a thing—the gift of life.