Yulia’s Law would bar hospitals from denying organ transplants to those unvaccinated for COVID

Yulia Hick's celebrates her fifteenth birthday just weeks after a lifesaving kidney transplant from ECU Health. Source: The Hicks family

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  • “We are veterans and our ethos is to help all people especially those who can't help themselves," said Chrissy Hicks. "This is about medical freedom. If we can't pick and choose what goes into our own bodies, we have lost all freedom."

Chrissy and Lee Hicks of North Carolina are watching this short legislative session closely, as a bill bearing their daughter’s name awaits action in the North Carolina Senate Rules Committee.

Yulia’s Law, House Bill 586, would bar “organ transplant discrimination on the basis of COVID-19 vaccination status.” The Hicks’ daughter, Yulia, was adopted from Ukraine in 2021 and was in need of a life-saving kidney transplant. After undergoing two years of dialysis at Duke University Hospital, Duke ultimately refused to perform the transplant in 2022 because Yulia’s parents had decided not to give her the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We don’t know why we were the ones who were denied,” said Chrissy Hicks. “They just said we were being ‘unsafe.’ She’d had COVID, so I asked to test her antibodies. If we’re going to play by the rules, let’s play by the rules, right? They refused.” 

Source: The Hicks family

Last spring, Yulia’s story made national news. ECU Health stepped up to help her. On May 25, 2023, ECU doctors successfully transplanted a kidney for Yulia from an unvaccinated living donor who’d also been moved by her story. Yulia suffers from a rare degenerative disease called Senior Loken Syndrome that damages her kidneys and eyes. The Hicks parents and their other 10 children, some of whom were also adopted, are now preparing to celebrate Yulia’s 16th birthday on June 5.

“She is doing great. She was home in three days, and normally with organ transplants a patient is doing well to be home in three weeks,” said Chrissy.

Earlier that same month, Yulia’s Law passed the House with a bipartisan 91-25 vote, sponsored by Rep. Celeste Cairns, R-Carteret, who tracked the Hicks family down after hearing their story. Cairns worked with members in her chamber and Senate leaders to get this law passed.

“Just after being elected to the NC house, I saw the Hicks’ story on the national news,” Cairns told Carolina Journal.  “I was immediately saddened by their story of discrimination, and then I was angered as I learned that it was occurring in North Carolina. In January 2023, shortly after swearing in, I had a chance encounter with Senator Jim Perry with whom I share a portion of my district.  We spoke about our mutual frustration with medical facilities that were treating non-vaccinated patients in such a way, and we decided to work together on legislation to prevent this type of discrimination.”

At the time, some House members were concerned about the legislature stepping into hospitals’ medical decision-making process.

“None of us should be telling a doctor how or when or who should have a transplant or be eligible,” said Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, during last year’s floor debate. “I don’t think you want legislators making these important medical decisions.”

“They play semantics with you”

However, Chrissy Hicks says that some hospitals’ decision-making process is far from clear or fair, as it stands right now. In fact, a recorded phone call between the Hicks family and the transplant team with Dr. Eileen Chambers, a pediatric nephrologist at Duke Health, shows just how murky the process really is.

“OK, so to clarify, this is a recommendation versus a requirement?” Lee Hicks is heard asking in the call.

“Well, I can’t require you to do anything, I can recommend these things, but if you don’t follow our recommendations, then Yulia can’t be a transplant candidate here,” Dr. Chambers replies, saying that the COVID vaccine is recommended for patient’s Yulia’s age and therefore it is on Duke’s “recommended” list in order to be a transplant patient there.

Hicks said they later found out that two weeks after Yulia was denied, Duke gave a man an unvaccinated kidney transplant, and his mom was the unvaccinated donor. Duke Health did not respond to Carolina Journal’s requests for comment.

“When your child is facing a life-threatening situation, most people are just going to say, whatever, just give them the experimental shot. I don’t care. I’ll just do whatever I have to do. I’ll jump through hoops of fire to get this life-saving treatment,'” Chrissy Hicks told Carolina Journal. “But what gave us a bit of spine was that Duke was giving unvaccinated kidneys to other people. We don’t know why we were denied for the same thing.” 

Privately, some lawmakers have also told Carolina Journal they are being advised that Duke no longer rejects transplant candidates based on COVID vaccine status and the law would be unnecessary.

“They play semantics with you,” Hicks said. “Dr. Chambers told us, ‘It’s not a mandate. It’s a recommendation, but if you don’t follow the recommendation, I will not give you a kidney at Duke.’ So, you know that’s actually a requirement.”

“They saw Yulia as a patient for two years and never intended to give her a transplant without it,” she added.

Source: The Hicks family

Yulia’s law

In addition, the budget process of the short legislative session has sucked up much of legislators’ attention, slowing all things down. For the Hicks family, though, this is not just about Yulia any longer, but about future transplant patients.

“We never know what type of new ‘threat’ is around the corner, and elected officials must be prepared to protect the rights of our constituents,” said Cairns. “North Carolinians should not need to fear that their access to healthcare services will be restricted based on other personal healthcare decisions.”

The family has enlisted the help of the American Constitutional Rights Union in the work to get this bill passed in North Carolina and in other states over the next year. Michael Bowman of the ACRU says the bill is narrow, limited to COVID-19 vaccine status, rather than broader bills that have failed in states like South Carolina.

“I always thought that the discussion was between doctors and their patients, not doctors dictating to their patients that they can live or die,” Bowman told Carolina Journal. “Of course, there’s nothing in the bill that prohibits them from being a doctor and making the recommendation, but they cannot discriminate for or against those having the shot.”

The Hicks family is also circulating a letter to supporters urging them to reach out to their North Carolina state senators and ask them to pass the bill this short session.

“Right now, our focus is just on getting this law passed because it’s about saving lives,” said Hicks. “I have people calling me still asking, ‘Where can we go to get a transplant?’ It’s happening all over our country. North Carolina really needs to stand up. It will pass if it goes to the Senate floor. It will pass.”

See also: State’s high court will take up teen’s forced COVID vaccination case