LOUISBURG, N.C. — Family and friends sobbed as the 17-year-old Mexican girl who endured two heart-lung transplants was laid to rest, even as a debate raged over whether such organs should have been offered in the first place.
Some 100 mourners gathered Tuesday at a small graveyard east of Louisburg for the funeral service of Jesica Santillan, who died last month after being given organs with the wrong blood type during the first transplant.
"She came as close to being an angel on Earth as anyone," attorney Frank Cassiano said after her white coffin was slipped into a mausoleum wall and covered with a pink granite slab. "This girl was brave every day of her life."
Critics have said American citizens should have priority for transplants. But transplant groups say it is only fair to give some organs to foreigners because they also donate organs to U.S. patients.
Plans to bury Jesica in Mexico were abandoned because there was no guarantee her illegal immigrant parents would be allowed to return to the United States afterward.
At the funeral, Nita Mahoney, whose husband started a charitable foundation in Jesica's name, seemed to hint at the controversy over whether the girl should have been on the long list of desperate transplant candidates.
"Love has no colors to it, and it crosses all rivers and nations," Mahoney said. "That was the only thing we wanted to do, was help a child. And in Jesica's memory, we will."
In an operation Feb. 7, Jesica was mistakenly given organs of the wrong blood type. Her body rejected the organs, and a matching transplant about two weeks later came too late to save her. She died Feb. 22 at Duke University Medical Center.
Cassiano said the family hasn't yet decided whether to sue Duke.
Hospital officials said they have the discretion to put foreign citizens, including illegal immigrants, on the national waiting list for transplants. And the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the distribution of organs nationwide, allows up to 5 percent of recipients to be from other countries.
"Part of the rationale is that it may be hypocritical to accept donors who are not U.S. citizens, but not allow them to be transplant recipients," said Joel Newman, UNOS spokesman.
A major factor in deciding who gets a transplant is ability to pay. The federal government pays for some emergency medical services, but does not cover illegal immigrants who are unable to pay.
Jesica had health insurance provided through her mother's job at Louisburg College. Family friend Mack Mahoney said the insurance will pay for 80 percent and a foundation he created to help the Santillans could cover the rest.