On her 32nd birthday in 2006, Jennifer Ruzek of Woolwich Township, New Jersey, gave a gift to her daughter: a portion of her liver, extracted in an eight-hour surgery and transplanted into the dying 8-month-old.
Bella Zuccato had been born two months premature, she told some 200 people gathered in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow on Saturday. She had weighed 4 pounds, and her failing liver had turned her skin yellow, said Zuccato, now 11.
But the transplant was successful, which meant Ruzek received a birthday gift in return: her daughter’s life.
“She still said it’s the best present anyone can ever have,” Bella said Saturday, with her mother, 43, looking on proudly.
Their extraordinary story was not unique among the crowd assembled Saturday for the rededication of the park’s Rose Garden, a ceremony held annually to honor organ donors and their families.
The somber tradition is at least 15 years old, according to Jeffrey Fenn, a board member of the Long Island chapter of the Transplant Recipients International Organization, one of the event’s organizers. This year’s speakers included elected officials, surgeons, donors and recipients, all seeking to articulate the meaning and value of organ donation.
“It’s rebirth. It’s renewal,” said Scott Wohl of the Manhattan-based nonprofit LiveOn NY, the event’s other sponsor.
“There is no greater deed, no gesture more profound, than to give the gift of life,” he said.
More than 10,000 people in New York State are awaiting organ transplants, according to LiveOn’s website.
Donations can mean life or death for them, Sabrina Williams, 48, told the crowd, speaking from personal experience. After 10 years on dialysis, the Bay Shore mother of four received a kidney transplant in 2015 from Peter Pellegrito, 29, who had died of a brain aneurysm.
The transplant brought Williams back to health — no small consolation for Susan Pellegrito, Peter’s mother.
“It’s heart-wrenching, but the rewards are great,” Pellegrito said, standing next to Williams.
Williams is one of at least 30 people who have received organ donations from her son, said Pellegrito, 63, of Staten Island.
“Despite our tragedy, good prevails and we know that Peter lives on,” she said.