Mother using marijuana moving to Arizona in hopes of heart transplant

By Melissa Eichman, Reporter
Last Updated: Monday, June 19, 2017, 11:41 PM EDT

Darlene Velez and her family are packing up their Holiday home and moving to Arizona.

  • Velez is not on Florida's Compassionate Use Registry
  • She admits marijuana use, says it helps her cope with meds
  • Family is moving to Arizona in a few weeks

The 37-year-old said Arizona can give her something Florida cannot. Darlene says she's been denied a heart transplant.

"They told me no, you can’t have it because you tested positive for THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol)," Velez said.

Velez is not on Florida's Compassionate Use Registry but admits to using marijuana.

"First thing in the morning is an absolute must, because that's usually when I’m the sickest in my stomach and that’s the only way I can keep down my medications," Velez said.

She takes more than a dozen medications. The mother of three discovered the heart problem after her youngest son was born five years ago.

"Slowly but surely, I started getting more sick and more sick to the point where I couldn't really walk very far. I couldn't really get up out of bed and do anything," said Velez. "So they kept adding more and more medications, then I was just throwing up all day because they were just killing me."

Velez says she started using marijuana two years ago.

"The difference was amazing," she said. "I mean I was getting up out of bed, I wasn't sick all day long, I was able to run around with my 5-year-old. I was able to play with him and be active and cook a meal for my family every once in a while, none of which I was able to do before that."

Feeling better, Velez still needs a heart transplant but says she doesn’t have time to wait for Florida. The family is moving in July.

Darlene Velez says she started using marijuana two years ago.

The state of Arizona has a statute prohibiting discrimination for organ transplants for qualified marijuana users, considering it equivalent to other medication. Velez says she will register there and is confident she will qualify.

"You should not have to move your family across the country to a place you literally know nobody just to be able to get life-saving treatment and still be, well, still be able to participate in life," said Velez.

Dr. David Klassen, the Chief Medical Officer of United Network for Organ Sharing said there are medical complications unique to transplant patients who use marijuana. He adds there are many factors that go into deciding whether someone makes it on a wait list.

Klassen said the network has guidelines, but the decision whether to list a patient is up to each transplant center.

"These are program-level decisions," he said. "There is not sort of national UNOS policy that addresses it specifically, but transplant centers across the country really have struggled with this a little bit in terms of how to best incorporate this expanding use of medical and recreational use of marijuana into their transplant listing decisions."

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