Summit County officials honor organ donor whose liver saved county staffer
While Assistant Summit County Manager Anita Lewis was enduring the fight of her life in December of 2016 after her body rejected a liver transplant, a Cache County family was mourning the loss of their 22-year-old daughter following a tragic car accident.
Lewis had been diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and received her first transplant in September of that year. However, it quickly became clear to her doctors that her body was not accepting the new organ and she would need another transplant.
While waiting for a second liver, Lewis recalled, she watched the news about a car accident that had claimed the life of a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Bayley Jayce Zollinger Huerta died from injuries sustained during a six-car pileup near Cove Fort on Dec. 17.
Two days later, Lewis was told there was a liver available and she immediately went into surgery. She wasn’t 100 percent sure that the young woman’s organ was the one she received, but she thought it was too coincidental not to be.
Six months after Lewis’ transplant, Huerta’s husband, Fernando, reached out to her confirming what she thought. She immediately wrote back about her desire to meet, but was met with no response.
Last week, however, she was finally able to meet the family of the woman whose liver saved her life.
“It was a healing moment for me to be able to meet them because at times I can feel her,” she said. “To tell them about the things I have been feeling and to share a little about me to them, there was an instant connection. It felt like we had known the family all of our lives.”
The encounter took place during the Feb. 14 Summit County Council meeting with nearly 100 people looking on. When the family was introduced, the room erupted in applause, with many giving them a standing ovation.
At Lewis’ prompting, the County Council had agreed to recognize National Donor Day in honor of Huerta.
“This last December was a very hard time for me because it was the first year anniversary of the day that Bayley had been in her accident,” Lewis said. “I was reliving that day and thinking how hard it must be with the family, and right then I thought I need to do something.”
She eventually connected with Fernando Huerta on Facebook and the two communicated about a future meeting. Once she notified him about the County Council’s proclamation, he put her in contact with Huerta’s mother.
“I called and it was the most difficult call I’ve ever made,” she said. “To talk to a mom who is mourning and tell her I was the recipient of her daughter’s liver. It was unbelievable.”
Lance Zollinger, Huerta’s dad, said he was surprised Lewis had been in contact with his son-in-law. He knew his daughter was a donor before she passed, but he knew nothing about the people who had received her organs. They agreed to attend the ceremony.
“Initially, I think we had some anticipation and hesitation,” he said. “We were also unsure what this was all about and how it was going to go down. We wanted it to be positive. Once we met, we felt very comfortable with Anita. She is a bright, shining, happy personality. We were grateful to know she was the recipient of Bayley’s liver.”
Zollinger said he appreciated the opportunity to not only meet Lewis, but to have recognition brought to his daughter and light shed on the benefits of being a donor.
“More than anything, we were excited to see she was doing so well and her life had continued,” he said. “They don’t always work, but this was a success. It gave her an opportunity for the life ahead of her. It was really a tender thing and we are grateful for that. Bayley would have liked that.”
County Council Chair Kim Carson said donors are incredibly important and Lewis is living proof of that.
“It was pretty grim there for a while, and to now that she had that opportunity because of this family and their incredible generous support of their daughter’s decision to be a donor,” she said. “They understood how important it is to them. Most people are probably more connected to donors than they think they are.”
These days, Lewis said she is feeling “better than ever.” She said the transplant has given her a second chance at life, inspiring her to honor her donor.
“I need to be a good person and, in my mind, I need to be more mindful of others and to serve others,” she said. “The family spoke with so much love about her and how beautiful of a person she was. It was just amazing they could share that. Her mother said she was a very forgiving person and always wanted to help someone to help make their load feel lighter. Now I want to do a better job of being more mindful of what people are going through to help ease their load as well.”
To learn more about becoming an organ donor, go to yesutah.org.
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