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Grieving mother donates toddler’s organs

“In my eyes, she’s always going to be a hero”

14-month-old Lilliana was the youngest of six and described as the “sunshine in everybody’s world”.

Happy and always on the move, 14-month-old Lilliana was the youngest of six and “the sunshine in everybody’s world,” remembers her mom, Sarah Cantu. That world came crashing down Oct. 1, 2018 when Lilliana found a mop bucket filled with water, threw her toys in and drowned while trying to fish them out.

It happened so quickly. Sarah grabbed Lilliana and ran to the neighbors for help and her older daughter – who had stayed home from school that day because she didn’t feel well – called an ambulance, which arrived in a few minutes. Lilliana was flown by helicopter from the local hospital in Chicago Heights to the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital.

Although doctors resuscitated her and put her on a ventilator, Lilliana never woke up again. After five days, doctors pronounced her brain dead. Sarah and her husband, Fabian Gomez, realized they would never hear her laugh or see her smile again and that she would have no quality of life. In that moment they decided to let her go and donate her organs.

“A lady from Gift of Hope visited me and she was very gentle. She said ‘Your daughter is going to get to live on through other people,’” said Sarah. “I had never even heard of organ donation. I decided to donate her organs as a way to continue to give her life. And I just didn’t want anybody else to have to go through what I was going through.”

Before her donation surgery, Lilliana’s mom, Sarah, wrote a letter that surgeon’s read aloud. It described the happy, smart, little girl who was “everybody’s favorite”.

Remembering “everyone’s favorite”

Sarah wrote a letter that was read to surgeons right before the donation. The letter described details about Lilliana’s daily routine; that she played with her brother, and loved to wait for her brothers and sisters to come home from school. She would knock on her great grandpa’s door, who lived with the family, asking for food. She was smart – she walked before she was one and knew how to open a door. There was never a dull moment when she was around.  Lilliana was a bubble of joy and everyone’s favorite.

Sarah and Fabian chose “I Can Only Imagine” by MercyMe, which was played after the letter was read, followed by a moment of silence out of respect and gratitude for Lillian’s gift.

Lilliana donated her kidneys to a woman in her 20s, her liver to a 2-year-old boy and her heart to a 2-month old girl.

Sarah said she would love to connect with the families of those who received Lilliana’s organs. “I don’t want them to feel bad,” she said. “I want to be part of their lives as much as they would let me.”

Lilliana donated her kidneys to a woman in her 20s, her liver to a 2-year-old boy and her heart to a 2-month old girl.

Inspiring others to donate

Sarah and her family moved to Austin, Texas as they had planned before Lilliana died, but they often visit family in Chicago Heights. Sarah said she is committed to volunteering for Gift of Hope to spread the word about the benefits of organ donation.

She said her cousin was so inspired by the family’s experience that she registered to become an organ and tissue donor.

Sarah wears a Gift of Hope bracelet to remember Lilliana. She loves when people ask about it so she can tell the story of Lilliana’s gift, and to encourage them to register as organ and tissue donors.

“I am sad, but Lilliana lived her purpose on Earth,” said Sarah. “She was only loaned to me for a short time. I would describe her as life. She gave me life and she gave everyone around her life. And now she’s a legacy, brightening other people’s lives. In my eyes, she is always going to be a hero.”

 

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