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Staying Healthy: Tri-Valley teacher reflects on life-saving skin grafts

Donor Network West sees record-high in donors in 2017

For Amanda Cerro, the timestamp of 10:38 p.m. on June 28, 2015 will forever be etched into her memory. It was a moment that changed her life.

The 26-year-old Livermore resident was living in Santa Cruz at the time. A year out of college at UC Santa Cruz, she had a place of her own and loved her job as a child welfare advocate in San Jose.

But that night, after a beignet-frying venture gone wrong, she ended up in the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center burn unit with third-degree burns covering a quarter of her body.

Skin grafts saved her life, she says. Now, she hopes to encourage others to become donors by serving as an advocate for Donor Network West, a San Ramon-based organ and tissue recovery organization serving Northern California and Nevada.

"It's such an important thing for people to be an organ donor, and I don't think people realize the impact it can have," she said in a recent interview.

Founded in 1987, Donor Network West works to facilitate organ and tissue recovery for transplantation, serving 175 hospitals and over 13 million people across 40 counties.

And last year was record-setting for the organization, as 2,732 people became donors the highest number of organ and tissue donors in Donor Network West's 30-year history.

"There are many moving parts to make donation a reality for the more than 10,000 people who are waiting for an organ transplant in Northern California and Nevada," said Cindy Siljestrom, CEO of Donor Network West. "We are very proud to have worked as a team to give them hope. We thank the donors and their families for saying 'yes' to donation in 2017 and for helping to heal lives."

These deceased donors could potentially help nearly 70,000 people people like Amanda Cerro.

Cerro remembers the details of her accident vividly. She and her then-boyfriend had begun frying beignets in her kitchen, when the pan started to smoke the oil in the pan had caught on fire. Within seconds, Cerro said, the flames were two or three feet tall and rising.

Her boyfriend carried the pan outside, while she grabbed her dog and laptop and then followed him through the front door. After putting her dog on the front lawn, she ran back up the porch steps and was hit by the inflamed pan.

"I walked up the porch, into this inferno," she said.

Her boyfriend had spilled some oil onto his hand and thrown the pan in pain, unwittingly into Cerro's path. Her hair on fire, she ran screaming from the porch.

When your body is on fire, all thoughts of "stop, drop and roll" are erased from your mind, Cerro said.

"All you can think about is 'I'm on fire,'" she said.

As she ran, she tripped and fell onto some wet grass, which extinguished the flames.

Two passing tourists found her and called 9-1-1. The ambulance that arrived didn't depart for 30 minutes, though, as the medics were trying to fly in a helicopter. But rough weather conditions prevented a helicopter from flying in, so emergency personnel drove Cerro to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.

She arrived at the burn clinic 90 minutes after she was injured with burns on 35% of her body, most of which were third degree. She received skin grafts on her right hand, entire right leg and both her feet.

Cerro spent five weeks in the burn unit, recovering and learning to walk again. But the effects of the incident were more far-reaching. She ended up leaving the child welfare advocacy job she had loved, as she said it was too difficult to deal with others' trauma while she was still dealing with her own.

"It's only the last seven months that I've started to feel a sense of normalcy," she said.

Now, Cerro works as a substitute teacher and a paraeducator in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. And about six months ago, she became an advocate for Donor Network West, attending events and visiting schools to talk about what it means to be a donor.

According to Donor Network West, almost 1,400 people in Alameda County are currently waiting for an organ transplant, and every day 22 people in the United States die while awaiting a transplant.

"I would just highly encourage people to become informed about what it means to be an organ donor," Cerro said. One organ donor can save up to eight lives, she said, and one tissue donor can heal up to 75 people.

"It is wonderful news that Donor Network West saw record high donors this last year," she added. "We hope to have another record high year in 2018!"

For more information on Donor Network West and organ donation, visit www.donornetworkwest.org.

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