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Families connected by transplant

Trine Engebretsen dreamed about meeting the family of Amanda DeLapp, the organ donor who saved her life.



She didn't know it then, but her donor's family had the same dream.



The strangers cried and laughed together for hours Friday afternoon when they finally met at the David Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.



Twenty-four years ago, a gravely ill Engebretsen became Florida's first liver transplant recipient. The sickly 2-year-old was saved by the grief-stricken parents of Amanda DeLapp, a Kentucky tot whose liver was donated after she died of a brain tumor.



"We always had that desire to know who she was, but we didn't know if she wanted us to find her,'' said Amanda's sister, Keisha DeLapp.



Engebretsen, 26, of Hollywood, tried to send a thank-you note in 2005, but she never heard back. She took it as a sign they didn't want to communicate. The DeLapp family glanced every day at Engebretsen's picture, in their home on a wooden dresser, but they never wanted to bother her.



Both families put their yearning aside.



But Amanda DeLapp's sister, Keisha DeLapp, persisted.



"I Googled her this year and saw she was off her medication and was going to apply to medical school,'' Keisha said. "I told my mom we had to find this amazing person.''



On a search of MySpace.com, Engebretsen's picture popped up. Keisha wrote a message on Engebretsen's wall: "I am Keisha DeLapp, the sister of Amanda DeLapp. If you'd like to have contact with me please let me know.''



The women have been planning their meeting ever since.



"I really just wanted to say thank you and tell them that their gift had not been forgotten,'' Engebretsen said.



Engebretsen was anxious leading up to the moment she never thought would happen.



"Not to be melodramatic, but every single day of my life is due to this family,'' said Engebretsen, who is in Pittsburgh to swim in the U.S. Transplant Games, a yearly athletic competition for recipients of organ transplants.



On Jan. 19, 1984, Engebretsen underwent a 12-hour liver transplant, which doctors considered the toddler's last chance at life.



The procedure was a medical breakthrough at the time. She became one of the youngest ever to receive a transplant.



Engebretsen was born with a rare genetic disorder that prevented her liver from producing a key enzyme, she said. She was jaundiced and her belly so swollen that her mother, Mary Ann Engebretsen, joked she was the world's only pregnant toddler.



When doctors removed the organ, they said it looked like a rotten potato.



The procedure -- which made national news -- was a success. Decades later, she no longer takes medication.



A growing number of liver transplants are being performed each year, according to the American Liver Foundation.



After the surgery, both families went on with their lives. Engebretsen began working with the Life Alliance Organ Recovery Agency in Florida and concentrated on her studies in hopes of becoming a doctor.



Then earlier this year, her BlackBerry began to buzz.



It was Keisha DeLapp -- Amanda's little sister. The MySpace connection had been made.



Fast forward to Friday, and Engebretsen was on pins and needles in front of the US Airways check-in counter in Fort Lauderdale.



She met Keisha and her mother Alisha at 4:30 p.m.



Engebretsen is set to speak at the U.S. Transplant Games' opening ceremony -- which the DeLapps will attend.



"I'm going to say how incredibly thankful I am to this family,'' she said. "I'll be trying my best not to bawl.''



Engebretsen, a staff associate for Life Alliance, an organ recovery agency out of the University of Miami medical school, plans to become a doctor some day.



A Fort Lauderdale High School graduate, she has always excelled in science, winning a Silver Knight Award for it in 1999.



Engebretsen's fascinating -- and thoroughly documented -- life took a tragic turn in 1995, when father Lars, a cruise ship captain, was lost at sea during Hurricane Erin.



The Club Royale cruise ship Engebretsen captained sank near Cape Canaveral, and he was never found.



Her fiance, Ryan Labbe, was the recipient of a liver transplant just six weeks ago.



Fate has brought both families where they never thought they would be. And now that they've met, they plan to never lose touch.



"We are so happy and grateful with what she is doing in her life. She is giving back,'' Keisha said. "You couldn't have asked for a better person to receive that gift.''


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