Hugs were shared and tears were shed last week as an Ahwatukee couple met the recipient of their late granddaughter’s kidney – one of four people whose lives were saved by the 16-year-old’s organs.
The reunion, hosted by Phoenix Children’s Hospital, was part of Heroes for Hope – an effort by the Donor Network of Arizona to educate the public on the importance of organ donations and encourage them to register as donors.
Zoe Mar, an Ahwatukee native, was 16 when she died of a brain aneurysm, but the memory of her giving nature lives on through Jovani Perez. The 7-year-old Chandler boy’s health was declining because of a defective kidney he was born with when fate stepped in.
Today, Jovani dances and runs to prove his newfound resilience as a result of Zoe’s gift of life.
“I get to play now and be with my friends,” said Jovani. “I tell them [a kidney is] a thing that needs a lot of water and it helps your body be healthy.”
Jovani’s life is filled with laughter and love; a year and a half ago, he was just a shell of the boy he is today.
Stationary in a hospital bed for weeks on end, the Perez family looked on as Jovani’s health rapidly declined.
The Perez family had known since he was born that Jovani was going to need a new kidney. They waited first for the moment he was old enough to handle a transplant, and then for the right kidney to become available.
That word came in May 2017 when the Perez family received news about an available kidney.
But they knew their gain of a kidney had been another family’s loss of life.
“It’s a lot to swallow on day one and from that point you just take it a day at a time,” said Jovani’s father Ben Perez.
On the other end of the miracle was the heavy-hearted Mar family.
Though Bob and Trena were Zoe’s grandparents, she was “our daughter in every respect,” said Bob, whom Zoe referred to as “dad”.
Zoe would snuggle between Bob and Trena when she had trouble sleeping. On the night of her death, she had crawled into bed with them.
“Even at her age she would cuddle with us and I think that’s something I miss most now,” said Trena, with tears in her eyes.
“She was making a weird noise, which is why we tried to wake her. It was like a wheezing. We didn’t know what it was, so we tried to wake her up but she wouldn’t respond. So, we called 911 and they had us put her on the floor and the paramedics came,” said Bob.
Bob and Trena didn’t know it then, but Zoe was brain dead in their bed before help arrived. The couple was told Zoe did not suffer.
The family was sent to Chandler Regional Hospital, where they thought Zoe’s problem would be identified and resolved. But when she was put on a helicopter and sent to St. Joseph’s for treatment, Bob and Trena realized there was a chance they may never get Zoe back.
At the hospital, they learned of Zoe’s aneurysm. They were told a calcium buildup indicated Zoe was most likely born with it.
It was positioned at the base of her skull, and if Zoe had gotten an MRI and doctors had caught it, the aneurysm’s position made the mass inoperable.
Bob and Trena didn’t delay donating Zoe’s organs because they knew their daughter wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The Donor Network approached us and gave us time to share who Zoe was. Until that point it had never crossed our mind. I mean — she was 16. But there was no second thought or hesitation, we just said yes, this is what she would want,” said Bob.
Bob and Trena described Zoe as giving and gracious to everyone she met.
The two grandparents said Zoe was built for the stage and spread joy through her performances with the Ahwatukee Children’s Theatre Select Show Choir.
Bob said he misses the little things she would do or say throughout the day, but what he misses most is the opportunity to watch her grow.
“Maybe it’s not the things that have been done, maybe it’s the things I was looking forward to. Zoe had talent, but more than that she had grit, so I knew she was going to be a great performer one day. I miss looking forward to the day I was going to sit in a huge crowd and cheer her on,” said Bob. “I’m still in the phase where I just miss her.”
Although Zoe is gone, her room is still pink, filled with hearts and dolls. Trena sets up Zoe’s pink Christmas tree each year — though some years prove to be harder than others.
Yet, meeting Jovani has given Bob and Trena newfound hope that their daughter’s memory lives on.
“I guess parents are supposed to be the ones to give the joy and the love and all that, and you just don’t think it’s the child that’s giving it to us, but she just, she was our life,” said Trena.
“Seeing [Jovani] run around and be the same bolt of energy Zoe was, it just fills a part of me that has been empty for a long time.”