Families of organ donors, recipients have an emotional gathering
For weeks, Noel Banuelos thought about the words she would use to greet the stranger who six months ago allowed her 2-year-old boy, Francisco, to live.
It would be an awkward moment, she imagined. How do you share your overflowing joy with a grieving young mother still living through so much pain?
"Sometimes, it doesn't seem right to be too happy, but my son has been given a second chance at life," said Banuelos, a 24-year-old Live Oak mother of two. "How can I not be happy? … But I don't know what I'm going to say."
In the end, there was no need for words – not when a tight embrace and a few tears could express everything that needed to be said.
On Saturday, the Banuelos family for the first time met the mother of Lauren Lucia, an 11-year-old Antioch girl who died six months ago and whose liver is now inside Francisco.
Emotional scenes repeated themselves many times on Saturday at Chabot Community College in Hayward, where a ceremony was held to honor the lives of those whose deaths have provided gifts of life to scores of others.
Rebecca Escobar and her family traveled from Elk Grove to express gratitude to the family of Jesse Corral, a 22-year-old San Pablo man who was gunned down in May 2009. His death provided Escobar with a new liver. She found herself too overwhelmed with emotion on Saturday to speak with a reporter.
Five others also benefited – including Corral's own father, who received his lungs.
"I remember praying for him, hoping that a miracle would happen for him," said Anthony Corral, whose own lungs had been severely scarred by disease.
"I didn't want his lungs. I wanted him to live. I didn't think it was right," said Corral, 44. But what better gift could there be, he realized, than to live and breathe through his own son's lungs? "That's when I knew it was a miracle."
About 18 Americans die each day while awaiting organ transplants, according to the California Transplant Donor Network, which coordinated Saturday's ceremony. More than 100,000 people in the United States – 21,000 of them Californians – are on a waiting list for an organ donation, the organization reports.
The need remains great, said Gwenn Silva, a donor family after-care supervisor for the network.
A donor can save as many as eight lives, she said. "It's an incredible gift to leave as a legacy of your own," she said.
A handful of donor families attended Saturday's ceremony, joined by the scores of others whose lives have been touched by their generosity.
Many others chose not to attend, their emotions still too raw, said Silva.
"It's not always easy to say thank you, because a lot of people are overcome with emotion when they meet a donor family that has given an incredible gift of life to people they don't even know," Silva said. "Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes all it takes is a hug. Or tears. Many times, there are no need for words."
For Patricia Lucia, there were no expectations. "They wanted to meet us," she said of the Banuelos family, "and we're just as happy to meet them as well."
Lucia gave them a picture of her daughter.
"What happened to her?" Francisco's father, Alfredo, asked.
A severe asthma attack and a seizure, Lucia replied.
"It's been overwhelming," said Laura Lucia, a registered nurse, who cradled her granddaughter as she died. "It brings it all around; it brings it back to why we decided to do what we did six months ago. That boy wouldn't be alive today if not for Lauren."
Perhaps she could have said the same for Jonathan Michaiel, 18, who was a bundle of nerves Saturday when he arrived to say thank you to the Lucias for his new kidney.
"I just want to meet the parents of the person who saved my life," he said.