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GUEST COMMENTARY: Once strangers, now family

December 3, 2015
By EDEN CENCEBAUGH , Lake Placid News

Your eye, my scar,

you and I have both have seen with the same eye.

You were a one-of-a-kind guy,

and I'm a forever grateful girl

to give me your organ to be able to see,

you'll always be a part of me.

My sophomore year of high school was supposed to be very different than what was literally right before my eyes at the young age of 15.

I struggled with the simple, everyday task of what others might take for granted. I was blind in my right eye due to an eye disease, Keratoconus, a condition that simply came into my life from out of the blue. My eye test at school determined that I'd need to seek further treatment by a professional. The school nurse contacted my mother, who immediately took me to an ophthalmologist. The diagnosis was indeed confirmed. I would need to be seen by a transplant surgeon for his evaluation.

My mother became my advocate and started getting the ball rolling by taking me to the transplant surgeon in Albany, who would even further diagnose my condition. It was on the very first doctor visit with the surgeon that my family heard those words: "Eden needs a corneal transplant. She's blind in her right eye, and it's the only way she'll ever see again." The surgeon set up my transplant surgery for October, and I was placed on a waiting list for a cornea from an organ donor.

My mother and the Rev. Milton Dudley spoke about a fundraiser in my benefit. Rev. Dudley united two towns together. Folks came to worship at church on a fall Sunday morning, and after worship, my benefit fundraiser was held. There were many, many people there, some I hadn't ever met and others I knew. All of the people who attended my fundraiser greeted me, offering kind words of good wishes. I embraced everyone with love and eternal gratefulness. I would be my surgeon's youngest patient to receive a corneal transplant. I had to embrace my diseased eye as part of life and to keep in mind that somewhere, someone's family would be mourning. That guilt was a profound fact to bear hold of, that a stranger would relinquish an eye to me.

My family and I made the trip to Albany Medical Center. During the car ride I couldn't stop thinking about my donor or their family, who it was, how the family was coping and dealing with their own world of grief. I understand that it was the family's decision and wishes; however, I felt consumed by guilt that my donor had died.

On the day of my surgery, my parents and I met with my surgeon at 6 a.m., he explained the procedure, and hours later, he emerged from the operating room to speak with both of my parents. My mother inquired about my surgery then my donor.

Before my transplant, my parents and I had discussed together that we wanted to reach out to my organ donor's family and express our eternal gratefulness. My mother spent her time diligently researching the very few facts she was given about my organ donor upon my transplant, and within days, she contacted them via telephone. After that very emotional phone call, I then wrote a profound thank-you letter to my organ donor's family. My mother told them to call us once they received my letter. Then we'd be able to read the letter to them on the phone, and they'd know 100 percent it was me who received their family member's organ. The mother did just that; 10 days later, my organ donor's mother called mine.

That phone call was a day in my life I'll never forget, ever. Both my mother and my donor's mother exchanged reading the letter during the phone call. Upon them receiving my letter and both of us confirming that they were, in fact, the donor's family, they expressed that they'd like to meet me. And so it began, a whirlwind of emotions, tears, excitement and especially guilt. My feelings of guilt were due to the fact that their family member had to die in order for me to receive my organ.

We set up a day and time, and we took a road trip to meet them. As I approached my donor's mother, I saw her smile and spread her arms open wide to embrace me, knowing that I was the recipient of her family member's eye. She was able to see her family member within me. We all hugged in a family circle because after all, we're all family now, forever. Two families joined, not by their choice or ours but God's. From that day forward, we've remained in close contact and have met on several special occasions and holidays. For me, It's important for them to know that just because I received their family member's organ, it doesn't end there.

I will always remember walking toward my organ donor's mother and thinking, from this day forward, I'll always honor their family member, always.

I'm a senior this year, and on the first day of my last year of school, I contacted my donor family, telling them I'm dedicating my senior year to their family member. I made a sign on a piece of construction paper that had my organ donor's name on it, I took a picture of it, and I emailed it to the family members. They responded, expressing their gratitude and thanking me for remembering their family member, that they needed to hear that from me. My senior yearbook page will be dedicated to my organ donor and my surgeon, Dr. Eden. By receiving my donor's cornea and Dr. Eden performing the transplant, I'm able to see the pretty blue sky above, the clouds go by and all the things that we as humans take for granted each and every day because of our eyesight.

I've told "our" story to many, and everyone is compelled to listen, telling me it reminds them of a movie.

I'm eternally grateful for the fundraiser held in my honor by Rev. Dudley and the congregation, to my organ donor and their family, and to Dr. Eden, my parents and two brothers.

I wish all of you a Thanksgiving spent with someone you love and honor. Even though my organ donor family won't be able to spend it with their family member, I'll be there, by their side for comfort, and because I made them a promise that for what they gave to me, I'll always be their daughter.

I remain eternally grateful.


Eden Cencebaugh, now 17 years old, lives in Keene and is a senior at Keene Central School in Keene Valley.



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