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Stories of Stanford: Cisco Vlahakis, Organ donor

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If you happened to see Cisco Vlahakis walking around today in the engineering quad, it’d be impossible to know that almost three months ago he was lying in a hospital bed missing 65 percent of his liver. While most Stanford students spent their summers working internships and preparing for their dream careers, Cisco was recovering from donating his liver to his godmother.

It’s doubtful that elementary-aged Cisco, while reading medical textbooks for fun, knew that he’d someday voluntarily subject himself to surgery for another’s benefit. “She’s always been in the picture; she’s been like a second mother to me,” he said in reference to his godmother. “We didn’t know what to do when she told our family about the cancer.”

Susy had contracted epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, a rare genetic disease that affects the liver, lungs and sometimes even the skin. Though she was already on the waiting list for a liver, lack of awareness about the severity of her condition and the fact that she wasn’t yet showing symptoms meant that she wasn’t considered high priority. She’d already asked her immediate family to donate, but everyone whose body could possibly withstand the taxing surgery was too frightened.

Cisco recalled reflecting on the news, concerned for Susy’s life, thinking of all the things she had done for him, from hearing out his side when he had conflicts with his parents to regularly checking in to see how he was doing. He thought about his family driving to her house in the suburbs for barbecues, jumping with her in bouncy houses, all the times he’d hung out with her daughter and son; he thought about another friend who had just passed away from leukemia, having received a bone marrow donation too late to recover.

During winter quarter of his freshman year, Cisco called Susy and told her he would donate. He’d already gone to Vaden to confirm that their blood types matched.

“I was walking on the street opposite Farrillaga towards Lakeside Dining, and she was crying — I remember that vividly,” he recalled. “She was super happy, like, ‘Thank you, thank you so much, oh my God, are you actually gonna do it, are you actually gonna do it?’”

Some people might have wavered about their decision afterwards, but Cisco wrestled with all his hesitations beforehand. “There was some second guessing [before telling her],” he admitted, “but I told myself, ‘I can be scared, but I should forget about those feelings because this is her life. What really matters is that she’s alive and in this world.’ And that’s what kept me going, even when it got really hard.”

It was hard. Cisco’s mother wept when he informed her of his decision, urging him not to go through with the surgery since nobody knew what might happen. Susy was her best friend since high school, but Cisco was her son.

His grandmother, whom he had always been close with, was simply angry. Cisco had slept at her house frequently as a child, and they’d spent a lot of time together, watching television shows and chatting while his parents went on dates. She had muscular dystrophy and was wheelchair-bound, so their activities were sometimes limited.

“She’s really into the Nintendo Wii, though,” Cisco said, leaning over and resting his wrists on his knees to demonstrate how they played together. “We bonded over that.”

Having suffered her whole life from a medical disorder, his grandmother couldn’t see how any healthy person could knowingly inflict damage upon themselves. “You have so much to live for. Why would you do this?” she asked. In the end, she feigned indifference. “If you want to do it, just do it,” she remarked coolly.

After the surgery Cisco spent a week in the hospital being fed liquids and vacillating between mild discomfort and extreme pain. Doctors were careful not to give him too much medicine, waiting to order narcotics only when absolutely necessary.

“I didn’t know when I needed it,” Cisco said. “When I felt pain, I would say ‘I need it.’ They would say, ‘Just breathe, just brace,’ until I was begging for it.”

In recovery Cisco stayed with his grandmother, and the two took care of each other. At first he could only walk outside briefly, but eventually he could do a little grocery shopping, even cook small meals while his grandmother watched over him. He constantly called Susy, who was suffering through her own recovery process even as her body responded well to the transplant.

By the time school started again, Cisco was back to normal, minus the scar on his abdomen. Unsurprisingly, he now views Stanford struggles from a new perspective. “We’re given so much,” he said, pausing to laugh and conceding that the phrase is cliché before continuing.  

“Even if things don’t go so well — you don’t get the club you want or the grades you want — it’s all insignificant because there are other people dealing with cancer and other life-threatening diseases and disorders.”

He also feels that the stigma toward donating organs is unwarranted. “People see their body and think, ‘Okay, this is how my body should be,’ and anything invasive or intrusive … [they] don’t want to deal with that. But you can’t live life and do the things you want if you’re not alive. Have that in your mind: the life you’re saving.”

Cisco is studying computer science and bioengineering, having already decided not to go to medical school as he once intended. He reasoned that he could maximize the number of lives he saved by engineering products for doctors to use rather than by being a doctor himself.

“It’s just a question of how much impact I can have given my short lifetime on this earth,” he said. “I’ve always known that I wanted to help people, and whatever I do, that’s the main priority.”

His actions undoubtedly reflect this conviction.

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Contact Katiana Uyemura at kuyemura ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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