Families of organ donors, recipients celebrate transplants in Donate Life Rose Parade entry
By Kevin Modesti, Staff Writer | The Daily News Los Angeles
PASADENA - From Jim Barnett's vantage point, it will be a tribute to a family of strangers who saved his life.
From where Liz Seraphin sits, it will be an honor for a daughter who lost her life.
Barnett, a Lancaster resident, and Seraphin, of West Los Angeles, will watch the Rose Parade on New Year's Day from different places but with similar anticipation for a single float.
The float representing Donate Life, a national organization that promotes organ and tissue donation, will display floral portraits of 60 deceased donors.
Among them is Amanda Seraphin, whose death at age 25 in a horseback-riding accident seven years ago led to Barnett, Arturo Nunez of Corona and a heart patient in Canada receiving vital-organ transplants.
One day recently, Jim Barnett and his wife Ellen worked elbow to elbow with Liz Seraphin and her brother Bob Mummey to decorate the life-size floragraph image of a smiling Amanda.
"Amanda will never have a wedding. She'll never have the fun of naming a child as I did. But she will have the honor of riding in the Rose Parade," said Liz Seraphin, a 66-year-old educator, who will watch with four relatives from a grandstand on Colorado Boulevard.
"It will never take the place of her, of course. But it's extraordinarily meaningful to me."
Barnett plans to view the parade on TV with Ellen.
"We've always watched," said Barnett, 60, who works for Northrop Grumman. "But this year is going to be extra-special."
The families had never met before last month at the office of One Legacy, an L.A.-based organ procurement organization. They got together again Dec. 11 at the Rose Parade float-assembly pavilion near the Rose Bowl.
In the years after the transplant, Barnett wrote two letters to Liz Seraphin. She wrote one back to him.
She said she still struggled with too many emotions to face the people who - in one way of looking at it - benefited from her tragedy.
"It's a profound shock to lose a daughter in a sudden way," Seraphin explained last week. "(But) I've learned to separate the loss of my daughter from (her feelings about) organ donation."
The conversation among Liz Seraphin, the Barnetts and the Nunezes wound up feeling surprisingly normal, Barnett said.
There were thank-yous and tears. They talked about grandchildren. Barnett has eight, Nunez 11.
"We treated each other like family. Which, in a sense, we are. Amanda kept me alive, and I'm carrying a piece of her," said Barnett, who has her kidney and pancreas.
One of Arturo Nunez's five children said it was an "amazing feeling" to see the three families together.
"There are a lot of different emotions. We share so much," said Adriana Nunez, whose father is a 71-year-old retired mobile-home builder.
Nunez invited Seraphin to place her hand on his abdomen, to "feel" the liver he received from her daughter.
"I felt Amanda was there," Seraphin said. "Not just her liver, but the essence of Amanda."
Seraphin said: "When I see the size of these families, I think this (what she has gone through) was worth it."
Liz Seraphin said she loved to watch Amanda ride horses, the young woman's posture straight and high, blond hair flowing from her helmet, joy beaming from her ruddy cheeks.
Liz said she expects to experience oddly similar feelings when she watches the Rose Parade float showing Amanda's portrait to the world.
"I think I'll feel immense pride," Seraphin said. "That's the same emotion I felt when I watched her equestrian competitions."
Amanda had been riding in Temecula, preparing for a cross-country equestrian competition, when her horse missed a jump over a rail and fell.
Telling the story, Liz said, "is still hard."
Amanda sustained a traumatic brain injury. She lived another four days at a Riverside hospital.
Liz maintained hope until the moment a doctor asked: "Would you want to talk about organ donation?"
The decision by Liz and her older daughter Kristen to donate Amanda's organs ended up providing the only silver lining in the ordeal.
Liz Seraphin remembered how her spirits soared as helicopters carrying that life-giving cargo rose in the dark sky.
"That was the last happiness I had for a while," she said.
Barnett and Nunez received phone calls that night from Loma Linda University Medical Center.
Barnett, who was diabetic, had been on dialysis for nearly a year while waiting for a kidney to match his rare B-positive blood type. Nunez, suffering from cirrhosis, had been on the national organ-donor waiting list for three months.
Twenty-four hours later, Jim and Arturo were in surgery.
It was April 25, 2003 - Ellen Barnett's birthday.
Ellen remembers that birthday as "the best one ever," but also recalls bittersweet emotions.
"The family that just lost somebody is planning a funeral, and we're celebrating new life," said Ellen, a former school teacher.
Jim is healthy now, and he and Ellen are able to travel again.
It was a year after the transplant before the Barnetts learned anything about the donor. Amanda had been the same age as the second of the Barnetts' three children. The Seraphins had moved here from Michigan, just like the Barnetts.
On Dec. 11, during a break from creating Amanda's floragraph, they stood in pale-blue Donate Life T-shirts next to the float and chatted like old friends.
Donate Life's seventh annual Rose Parade float depicts kite-flying as an expression of its theme: "Seize the Day!"
Randi Swersky, a Sherman Oaks resident who received a new liver and kidney nearly five years ago, paused while working on the float to say she hopes seeing the float will inspire people to learn more about organ donation.
"There are a lot of misconceptions," Swersky said, including the incorrect belief that doctors won't try as hard to save people who have signed up to be organ donors.
One Legacy, a Los Angeles-based partner of Donate Life, says more than 109,000 people are on the national organ-transplant waiting list. They include more than 8,000 in the L.A. area's seven counties.
Though nearly 90,000 Americans have registered as organ, tissue and eye donors by visiting donatelife.net, it's not enough to prevent 17 dying each day awaiting organ transplants.
Watching Liz Seraphin chat with the Barnetts and Nunezes underscored the value of planning for organ donation, said Tenaya Wallace, director of Donate Life's Hollywood campaign.
"At their darkest moment," Wallace said of the Seraphins, "they were thinking beyond themselves."
In addition to the 60 floragraphs and 30,000 roses dedicated to specific donors, the float will carry 27 organ donors and recipients, and one person who is on a waiting list for a kidney.
The floragraphs include a portrait of Katya Todesco, a Simi Valley girl who died at age 5 in 2008. Her heart went to Kyle Martin, of Mission Viejo, who is 7.
Mia Adriano, of Pasadena, who died in 42 in January, is honored with a floragraph. Her sister Irene Atencio, 43, who received a tendon from Mia to repair a knee, will be a float rider.
Each floragraph was made by teams of family members like the Barnetts and Seraphins.
"I think I'll have a sense of pride that we got the chance to help honor our donor Amanda and her family," Barnett said, looking ahead to Jan. 1. "It's a beautiful tribute," Seraphin said. "It surprises me I would feel so good about it."