BY Heidi Evans
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sunday, April 5, 2015, 2:30 AM
Her hands trembling, and eyes brimming with tears, Patricia Almonte pressed a stethoscope to her ears and listened to her daughter’s heart beating in another little girl’s chest. “Oh, oh, my God,” the Staten Island mom sobbed, cradling 8-month-old Essence Walls in her arms.
Almonte, 22, kissed the infant’s head and whispered to the pink princess, “Thank you. . . . That was such a miracle.”
Essence Walls is just one of the lives saved by Almonte’s precious daughter, Veronica, when she died in December after complications from increased pressure on her brain.
Justin Fordgay, a 2-year-old Brooklyn boy with a rare liver tumor, received her liver. And a 68-year-old woman got two life-saving kidneys. A fourth unknown recipient received the gift of sight from the little girl’s donated corneas.
During an extraordinary and emotional reunion last week, recipient families gathered at the Manhattan office of the nonprofit LiveOnNY to meet and thank Almonte for the generous gift of life.
“I’m so grateful for her,” said Essence’s mom, Malaysha McAllister, of Staten Island. “She saved my daughter’s life.”
Justin’s mother, an emotional LaToya Ford, put a gentle arm around Almonte, and said, “Thank you for giving me my son back.”
Veronica Grace Garcia died on Dec. 4, just two weeks shy of her third birthday. She did more in her 35 months on Earth than most people accomplish in a lifetime.
A micropremature baby with cerebral palsy, she defied all the odds. Doctors told Almonte that her daughter had a 10% chance of surviving at 24 weeks gestation. She weighed just 1 pound, 6 ounces and suffered a brain bleed, hydrocephaly — as well as a hole in her heart. Even if she did survive, doctors told Almonte she would likely have been blind, and probably unable to walk or talk.
But spunky Veronica — who loved snapping selfies with her Aunt Pam and eating pizza with her dad, Jason, grew to do it all. She was the light of her family’s life — four generations of Almontes living under the same roof in a loving Staten Island home.
She spoke Spanish and English, loved music and especially helping her grandmother Zeneida do the dinner dishes perched on a little stepstool by the sink. Her grandfather Andres waited outside for her school bus to return every afternoon before he left for work.
Her signature phrase, “Are you serious?” always made her family laugh.
When she died at Richmond University Medical Center, Almonte, in her unspeakable grief, made what she called the “only decision” — to donate Veronica’s organs.
“It’s the only part that keeps me sane, that her heart beats somewhere else, her kidneys and her liver are in others, that my daughter is somewhere and she saved other children,” said Almonte, a direct care counselor with United Cerebral Palsy.
“It is the only thing that keeps me smiling in addition to all the wonderful memories we have of her. I am very happy with my choice.”
Essence’s heart transplant took place at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia, and Justin’s liver transplant was performed at Mount Sinai Hospital. The kidneys were transplanted at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Both of the juvenile recipients were near death when the transplants took place.
Essence, who was born with a congenital heart defect, had gone into cardiac arrest several times, terrifying her young parents. And Justin suffered from a rare liver cancer that would have ultimately taken his life.
“It’s tragic and horrid to lose a 2-year-old,” said Dr. Sandy Florman, director of Mount Sinai’s Recanati/Miller Transplantation Institute and part of Justin’s care team. “At least there is some solace and consolation in knowing that another 2-year-old’s life was saved. These families gain tremendous perspective.
“It’s incredibly important to them later to know that their loss was not without meaning. And when these families do meet, it is spectacular.”
Not all organ donor families or recipients want to meet. Emotions are complex, especially knowing that someone had to die so that a loved one could live.
A total of 133 children in New York State are awaiting transplants; many will die waiting.
In poignant remarks at Tuesday’s unusual gathering, Helen Irving, the president and CEO of LiveOnNY and a former critical care nurse and transplant coordinator, told Almonte, “You had the courage to say yes to donation when many say no.
“Around you is a new family — a small village, in fact — here today to support you and to love you. And to say thank you in a way that only a mother would understand — from one to another,” she said.
“Patricia, we hope your courage will inspire others to say yes too, and that you find comfort in truly saving the lives of others,” she said.
As the three newly bonded families — including the hospital staffs that cared for Veronica, Justin and Essence — prepared to say goodbye, Almonte beamed as she watched Justin run around the room and play with his toy train, and Essence squeal with delight as her father, Carl, played peekaboo.
“Justin and Essence are such beautiful kids,” Almonte said.
“Veronica would have loved to be there too playing with them. I could picture her right in between them.”
To learn more about organ donation or to register as an organ donor go to www.liveonny.org.