Health & Medicine

Capitol walk draws families of organ donors, recipients

The Salcone family joined a state Capitol march to raise awareness of the need for organ donations. Five-year-old Luca received a donor’s liver when he was 18 months old. From left: Katie Salcone, Olivia Salcone, Luca Salcone and Chris Salcone, all of Folsom.
The Salcone family joined a state Capitol march to raise awareness of the need for organ donations. Five-year-old Luca received a donor’s liver when he was 18 months old. From left: Katie Salcone, Olivia Salcone, Luca Salcone and Chris Salcone, all of Folsom. ccraft@sacbee.com

With a face painting of Thomas the Tank Engine chugging along his cheek, 5-year-old Luca Salcone displayed unflagging energy on Sunday as he jumped, ricocheted and leapt around inside an inflatable bouncy-house just steps from the state Capitol.

It was quite a contrast from a few years ago, according to his parents. At 18 months, Luca suffered acute liver failure, nearly knocking on death’s door. Doctors at Stanford Medical Center told Katie and Chris Salcone that it was time to decide how they wanted to spend their son’s last moments on Earth.

Luca’s only prayer for survival was getting a liver transplant, and fast. It was a Friday morning when surgeons placed Luca’s case on a transplant list. His status: 1A, the highest priority. By Friday evening, a donor liver was located, as another family’s painful loss became Luca’s saving grace.

“It came from a little boy named Johnny,” said his mother. “His family is still dealing with the loss of their seven-year-old son. Every night before bedtime, we say a prayer to Johnny.”

Luca appeared to be the youngest transplant survivor among more than 100 marchers gathered Sunday morning for a one-mile walk around Sacramento’s Capitol. The walk, the first of its kind held by local nonprofits Team Donate Life and Sierra Donor Services, is intended to raise awareness and inspire more people to sign up on the Donate Life California registry.

At the moment, 21,000 Californians are awaiting lifesaving organ and tissue donations, according to data tracked by Donate Life California. Nationwide, a total of 125,000 people need body-part donations of one kind or another.

Some in attendance Sunday know firsthand the difference a donor can make. Linda West recalls the day her daughter, Kaylee Elaine West, 24, unexpectedly announced she wanted to help others by donating every useful part of her body to others when the time came. She asked what her mother planned to do.

West recalls scolding her daughter: “You know I don’t like to talk about those things.”

Then one night, Kaylee returned to El Dorado Hills from a trip to Disneyland, went to bed and suffered a brain aneurysm in her sleep, her parents said.

“Little did we know that 39 days later we’d have to make the decision whether to honor her wishes. How could we not follow through with Kaylee’s greatest gift to others?” West said. “She was always giving to others and not wanting anything in return.”

Kaylee’s liver, two kidneys, pancreas, heart valves, corneas, skin and tissue went to patients awaiting transplants, her mother said. Her donated organs saved three lives, restored sight to two others and helped many others needing tissue, according to her mother.

“Each donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation,” said Tracy Bryan, of Sierra Donor Services, ticking off the human body’s eight organs: heart, two lungs, skin, pancreas, two kidneys and the liver. Another 50 lives can be saved with one person’s tissue donation.

Sierra Donor officials also said that donations of bone, ligaments and tendons may help patients avoid amputation.

People can become donors by signing up through the state Department of Motor Vehicles when obtaining a driver’s license or online at donatelifecalifornia.org.

As for Luca, his future appears healthy, say his parents, both of whom are registered nurses. He is on little medication and likes to show off his scar, which he calls “my shark bite.”

Call The Bee’s Cynthia H. Craft, (916) 321-1270. Follow her on Twitter @cynthiahcraft

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