Center for Organ Recovery and Education honors selfless acts and second chances
It wasn't a terrible fall, but when 3-year-old Rosalina Vargas fell at a playground last weekend, her parents took her to the emergency room.
Under normal circumstances, Sarah and Tony Vargas would have simply brushed the dirt off their daughter's knees and allowed her to continue playing.
But little Rosie's life is not normal. Not yet.
"Her stomach muscles are still open from her first surgery — because she's going to be re-transplanted, they never closed it back up," said Sarah Vargas, 39, of Cranberry. "We were worried because her organs aren't protected, and because her liver is failing she also has clotting issues. We took her just to be safe."
Rosie did not complain.
In fact, when she entered the hospital and realized where she was — again — she promptly held out her arm and waited for the needles.
Which broke Sarah Vargas's heart.
"My 3-year-old is so battle worn from all these medical procedures that she just knows, 'Oh, I'm at the doctor's. Here, poke me,' " she said. "That's her normal. As a parent, you don't want that for your child."
A week later, with Rosie in her arms, Vargas spoke at a Center for Organ Recovery and Education ceremony in O'Hara. The event Sunday celebrated organ donors for their life-giving final acts.
The Vargas family, originally from Thousand Oaks, Calif., moved to Western Pennsylvania two years ago to be closer to her doctors at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Rosie was born with Maple syrup urine disease, a metabolic disorder that prevents the body from processing certain amino acids. At 10 days old, she went into cardiac arrest. At nine months old, she received a live liver donation, from her aunt, but her body rejected it, and Rosie is back on the transplantation list, with 118,000 other Americans.
She needs a new liver, which means that someone must die for her to live.
"The fact that someone's worst day is going to be her hope is not lost on us," Sarah Vargas said Sunday at the CORE ceremony.
Mary Grace Hensell listened to Vargas speak.
Her son, Brian, died in a car crash in 2011, five days before his 25th birthday. In their final conversation, Brian told his mom that he had become an organ donor, and that he did it for her: Hensell was an operating room nurse for more than three decades, including 13 years at Allegheny General Hospital on the North Side, and she was heavily involved in the transplant team.
Brian's heart, lungs, liver, kidney and pancreas all gave life to others.
"My son gets to live on," Hensell said.
Marty Brown, 24, of Corry, Erie County, also listened.
Like the Vargas family, he understands waiting. After suffering congestive heart failure at age 19, he was kept alive for 1,694 days by a mechanical heart pump. Then in November, a new heart became available.
"I wanted to feel happy," he said. "But I knew that meant that somebody had to lose their life."
A couple months later, he received a Facebook message from someone he did not know. It was his donor's sister.
He didn't know what to say; only that thank you was not enough.
"We listen to kids all the time and they talk about their heroes being Superman or Spider-Man ... my heroes are donors," Brown said. "I finally feel like I have a future. I can go out and actually have a career. I can move out on my own. I can get married. I can grow old with somebody.
"All of that because of the selfless act of some stranger I never met."
There were other stories.
About 1,000 people attended the ceremony, almost every one of them carrying a personal story of receiving life through death, or of enduring the loss of a loved one whose passing allowed others to be reborn.
In the middle of them all was a little girl named Rosie.
She giggled and hugged her parents. She made everyone smile. She was completely unaware that her life is not normal, or that her parents are determined to one day make it just that.
"This little girl is going to go on to live," Sarah Vargas said. "She's going to go to dance class, she's going to have birthday parties. She's going to get her second chance."