By Rebecca Band
Ask just about any parent and they’ll tell you: “I’d give up pretty much anything if it meant keeping my kid healthy.” But few parents will ever experience the kind of sacrifice that IBEW 1245 member Patrick Whitham has made to save his son.
Ten years ago, Whitham and his wife discovered that their son Jake – who was just two years old at the time – suffered from a rare condition that was causing major damage to his kidneys. For the past decade, young Jake has been undergoing medication-based treatments to prevent full-on renal failure. Whitham knew that it was only a matter of time before Jake would need a kidney transplant.
That time finally came in early 2015. The doctors found that Jake, now 12 years old, had critically high levels of creatinine in his blood and would need to either go on dialysis or get a new kidney. Whitham didn’t think twice. He immediately began preparing to donate his own kidney to his son.
The process was intense and took many months. “I had to ready myself, spiritually, physically and financially,” Whitham said. “I began running so I would be in good enough shape to be a donor. I underwent a lot of tests… And I did extensive research to make sure I had all my ducks in a row.”
During his research, Whitham discovered a California state law, SB 1304, also known as the Organ & Bone Marrow Donation Leave Law. The statute provides certain rights to individuals who donate organs or bone marrow, including a paid leave of absence from work.
Whitham, who works as a Heavy Equipment Mechanic for the City of Lompoc, approached his HR department to request a leave of absence under SB 1304, but he was denied. He continued to pursue it for weeks, to no avail. Eventually, he went to his union shop steward, Jaime Tinoco, and told him what was going on.
“When I first talked to Jaime about it, it was just because I wanted to keep him and the union in the loop. I didn’t expect anything to come from it,” Whitham said. “But Jaime really took the ball and ran with it. He took it to heart. He went to bat for me, and I really appreciate that.”
As a father himself, Tinoco felt compelled to do everything he could to help his union brother out.
“This organ donation really hit me hard emotionally,” said Tinoco, “because it shows the true definition of a father.”
It was Tinoco who discovered that the organ donation leave law does not apply to City employees, which was why Whitham’s leave request was turned down. So he reached out to IBEW 1245 Assistant Business Manager Ray Thomas to see if there was anything the union could do.
Thomas was also touched by Whitham’s story and went out of his way to get the leave request approved.
“I directly contacted City of Lompoc Human Resources Director Gabe Garcia,” Thomas said. “Mr. Garcia immediately empathized with Patrick and Jacob’s situation, and proceeded to champion the effort to allow for paid and excused time off provisions for Patrick while he donated a kidney to his son.”
Tinoco also contacted the Mayor and made an appointment with City Administrator Patrick Wiemiller in order to lobby for the paid leave. On June 19, just days before Whitham was scheduled to have the surgery, Tinoco and fellow IBEW member John Daniel met with Wiemiller, who agreed to make an exception and approved Whitham’s leave of absence.
On June 23, Whitham and his son took the four-hour trip to UCLA Children’s Clinic and underwent the extensive and highly invasive procedure. The transplant was a success, and father and son are both recovering well.
“[Before the surgery] I had mixed feelings; there was apprehension, but I was also looking forward to getting through it,” Whitham said in an interview two weeks following the transplant. “There’s such a sense of relief to have this behind me. We’re both still in pain, but we’re so happy.”
Young Jake’s recovery is ongoing. Whitham’s wife has to take their son up to UCLA Medical Center twice a week, every week, for the next few months for follow-up appointments with the doctors. Even though Whitham had been saving up for this and his paid leave request was approved, the medical bills, travel to LA and other expenses associated with the transplant still hit the family pretty hard.
Tinoco recognized that the Whithams could use some financial support, so again he took action.
“We requested to do a City-wide BBQ fundraiser for Patrick and his family. The City Administrator strongly supported our request,” Tinoco said. “Even the Police Chief got involved in the fundraiser effort.”
The Local 1245 leadership pitched in as well. When the Lompoc unit informally requested a $500 donation from IBEW 1245 to purchase meat for the BBQ, the Local 1245 Executive Board members reached into their pockets and generously donated their own money to purchase the meat for this event, instead of requesting a formal unit motion for a Community Fund contribution (which would be the standard procedure for this type of donation).
The BBQ took place on July 16, and about 250 friends, co-workers and supporters came out. The event ended up raising $3,147 for Whitham’s family.
“The support we’ve gotten — not only from friends and neighbors, but all the union members and people from the City — it’s almost overwhelming,” said Whitham. “I was planning to do this on my own, kind of under the radar. But the fact the people want to help is really appreciated.”
“The Jacob Whitham Act”
Whitham’s ordeal has prompted the City to change their Personnel Procedure Manual in order to incorporate the Organ & Bone Marrow Donation Leave into its policy, in the event any other City employees ever have to donate an organ in the future. The members of the Lompoc unit lobbied in support of the resolution, which was unanimously approved by the City Council by a vote of 5-0 on July 7th.
“[HR Director] Gabe Garcia went all out for Patrick and the subsequent city-wide resolution,” Assistant Business Manager Ray Thomas noted, “so I was not surprised at all when Gabe told me that, to him, this organ donation resolution at the City will always be known as the ‘Jacob Whitham Act.’”
Whitham hopes his ordeal and the new changes to the City’s policy will raise awareness and embolden other Lompoc employees to become organ and tissue donors.
“This is something we should all be proud of. The city did the right thing for its employees and it’s a win-win for both [the City and its workers],” said Whitham. “If this sways someone else to save another person’s life or give them a better life, then it’s a good thing.”