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'In our darkest hour ... something good': Transplant recipients, donor families honor the gift of life

Deloris Hodge, left, with her son Triston and

Deloris Hodge, left, with her son Triston and sister Pshawnette Sargeant in the rose garden at Eisenhower Park on Saturday. Another of Hodge's sons, Royce, died in 2011, and multiple organs of his were donated, his mother said.  Credit: Howard Schnapp

After Megan Ryan put her hand on the arm of Robert Skaretka to feel his pulse following an organ-donor ceremony Saturday in East Meadow, tears welled up in her eyes.

"When we see each other I usually check in, just to feel my brother’s heart beating in his body," said Ryan, whose 16-year-old brother Terrance Ryan, of Centereach, died in an accident in 1991. "When Bob first woke up, he said he wanted to meet us and thank us. But we really owe thanks to him because in our darkest hour of tragedy, something good came from it."

Ryan and Skaretka were among about 175 people who gathered in Eisenhower Park for an annual ceremony to honor organ recipients, organ donors and donors’ families.

Last year’s ceremony was composed of only a few speakers and transmitted by YouTube because of COVID-19, said Joy Oppedisano, president of the Long Island Transplant Recipients International Organization, which sponsors the event each year next to an organ donation rose garden planted more than 30 years ago.

Ryan, 43, of Miller Place, said she is gratified to see how healthy Skaretka, 72, of Forest Hills, Queens, is.

"He’s really honored my brother by taking care of his body," she said. "He’s run 19 New York City marathons with" her brother's heart.

At the bottom of a gold necklace that Deloris Hodge, 61, of Elmont, was wearing to the ceremony is a heart with a photo of her then-5-year-old son Royce Hodge, who died of a brain aneurysm at age 14, in 2011. Around the photo is inscribed "Forever in my heart."

Multiple organs from her son were donated, Hodge said.

Royce’s aunt, Pshawnette Sargeant, 54, of Cambria Heights, Queens, said her nephew would have wanted his organs to benefit others.

"That was his life — he was always helping people," she said. "Knowing that others can live on because of him is quite rewarding."

Tony Jimenez, 70, of Glen Cove, stood next to niece Julianne Jimenez as they spoke of how last year she donated one of her kidneys to him. He said he was on a six-year waiting list for a kidney from a deceased person and "I would have languished on the list and died" if she hadn’t donated her kidney.

Jimenez said he was at the ceremony in part to send out the message that living donors save lives like his.

Julianne Jimenez, 32, of Centerport, spent two weeks recovering from the operation to remove her kidney, but after two months, she was back to normal, hiking and dancing and doing the same favorite activities that she did before her donation.

"It didn’t slow me down at all," she said.

Ellen Lentini, 68, of Hicksville, said the prognosis was so poor for her then-13-year-old daughter Jennifer Lentini in 1996 that she called for a priest to administer last rites. But three months later, a 14-year-old upstate boy, Matthew McIntyre, died in a gun-related accident, and his heart was transplanted into Jennifer, who had the heart-muscle disease cardiomyopathy.

Six years ago, Jennifer Lentini, now 38, of Hicksville, traveled to Florida to meet Matthew’s mother, Vicki Brannon, for the first time. On Saturday, she displayed a photo of Brannon with her ear at Lentini’s chest, so she could hear her son’s heart beating.

Lentini, pointing to the shortage in organ donations and the long waiting lists, said events like Saturday’s highlight how a donation allows people like her to "have a second chance in life."

"People die every day for no good reason, because they never had a chance to get a transplant," she said.