ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – Three mothers brought together by fate are on a mission of kindness to honor a child whose organ donation saved a little boy in St. Petersburg.
The mission began when baby Michael Angelo was diagnosed with biliary atresia at 4 months old, meaning there was no bile flow from his liver.
His mom told 8 On Your Side’s Daisy Ruth that the diagnosis was late, so medical professionals immediately talked about a transplant.
Michael was airlifted to the Miami Transplant Institute, where the family stayed from Jan. 14 to April 29.
Jill Angelo said she tried to be a living donor for her son, but had an artery that would have been too big for her baby.
Finally, the family received some good news.
“We got a call that a liver was available and that he was going to get a second chance,” Angelo said through tears. “So he got his transplant the next day and they said the liver was perfect for him.”
The good news didn’t come without a price, however.
“It’s hard to know that somebody had to die so my son could live.”
Michael’s liver came from a 2-year-old boy named Carter, who died of accidental drowning. Jill Angelo said Carter’s family donated his organs to other families as well.
“I was bitter. Why did my son get sick? Why him? What did he do, he’s only a baby, he’s only 4 months. And this family just lost a child and they still thought of donating and thinking of other people,” Angelo said.
She had spent her time in the hospital giving back to nurses in the form of coffee and goodies to distract herself from the hard times her family was going through.
Angelo knew she wanted to give back beyond bringing coffee to her son’s nurses. That’s where Lindsay Hernandez and her foundation in honor of her son, the Christian Michael Hernandez Foundation, came in.
Hernandez said she was initially contacted to just be a support for Angelo and her family.
“And then if you know Jill five minutes, you know that she’s ready to pay it forward and give it back. She then reached out and said ‘when we get out of here and he has a liver and we’re home and healthy, how do we pay this back? How do we pay this forward?’” Hernandez said. “So that’s where this kind of initiative got started and Jill is a mama on a mission to make sure that Carter’s memory… is not left behind in all of this.”
The pair teamed up with Brooke Bennett, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, who runs a swim school across numerous locations in the Tampa Bay area.
“And so we kind of teamed up with Brooke, who is our celebrity friend, to find a way to kind of promote this initiative. Carter passed away due to accidental drowning. And so I think we felt like there was no better way to pay it forward than to offer swim lessons,” Hernandez explained.
Bennett said her passion and purpose is to make sure children are water safe, saying that is the most important thing here in Florida.
“Babies are born with the instinct of water. That’s what they live in mommy for those 37 or 40 weeks…So when they come out, the most familiar thing to them is water,” she explained. “So teaching a baby to go underwater and hold their breath? Piece of cake. A child in the range of like 2 to 3, it’s going to take some patience and talking them down from their fears that they can’t explain yet, but they’re starting to have opinions of their own.”
Through Angelo’s drive to give back, Hernandez’s foundation and Bennett’s expertise, “Carter’s Gift” was born.
“We’ve connected with our donor family and they’ve given us the blessing to use Carter’s Gift as a scholarship for swim lessons, for swim safety, for families who need swim lessons, who are not aware of it and might not be able to afford swim lessons. And it’s really, really, really important. I couldn’t stress that enough. So we want to do this for them. For Carter,” Angelo explained.
At Bennett’s school, a full donation to supply a family with a month of swim lessons would be $180. That includes eight lessons throughout the month, twice a week.
Hernandez said she wants to use her foundation as a platform to reach the community and inspire people to donate to Carter’s Gift.
“And sponsor swim lessons for children in need, maybe medically fragile children, maybe foster children, maybe children who at the time when other kids were learning to swim were busy trying to stay alive or find a safe and healthy home to live in,” she said. “We’re kind of really wanting community involvement with maybe recommendations about kids who would benefit from these swim lessons, as well as donations.”