Three months ago, Dr. Jennifer Garcia watched 16-month-old Delilah Nevaeh Valdez undergo surgery in which doctors transplanted seven organs - liver, stomach, pancreas, small intestine, large intestine, kidney and spleen.
But one of the most gratifying moments for Garcia, a University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital pediatric gastroenterologist, came when the doctor walked into the baby's hospital room in early March "and Delilah was sitting in a high chair grabbing things and eating them."
"She likes Chef Boyardee ravioli, " Garcia said. "She's the perfect patient, any GI doctor's dream.
Turns out little Delilah, now 19 months old and over 26 ½ pounds, might be getting a little too plump these days. And she'll be leaving Jackson with her mother, Julissa Cerda, and father, Agapito Valdez, to return to San Antonio by the end of the week. Wednesday morning, after a small news conference documented her story, the dark-haired baby dozed peacefully, a pink pacifier in her mouth.
"When she was born they gave her 24 hours to live, " said Cerda, 24, who gave birth six weeks early in September 2010. "They basically told us she was going to die because she couldn't eat. I look at these doctors as angels."
Delilah's multi-organ transplant was the result of a rare congenital and often fatal condition called Megacystis Microcolon Intestinal Hypoperistalsis Syndrome, which prevents the stomach, intestines, kidneys and bladder from working correctly.
"Delilah had a condition in which her smooth muscles don't contract normally, " said Dr. Andreas Tzakis, director of UM/Jackson Memorial's liver/GI transplant program. He performed the transplant operation, which took almost 14 hours. "When she ate, the food would not go south . . . The amazing thing is not just what happens with the surgery, but that the recovery these patients make can be complete.
"God willing, if patients survive one year, they usually do fine for a very long time. Four or five years can mean a lifetime, " he said.
The transplant was the 299th at Jackson, one of the world's leading facilities in intestinal and multi-visceral transplants. These days, Delilah is eating food during the day and getting fed at night through a tube that runs from her nose to her stomach.
"Most babies that need this transplant eat by being fed with an intravenous line through their vein, " Garcia said. "Because of that, they don't learn how to eat normally, and have food aversion."
"Chef Boyardee, applesauce, banana pudding, pizza - and she loves drinking water, " said her father, 26, who was studying drafting and design at the University of Texas at Brownsville before Delilah was born. "I look at life a lot differently now."
Mom and dad also have not forgotten the 3-month-old baby who made it possible for Delilah to live. They know nothing about that baby - not even the sex or how the baby died.
"They flew the organs over and it happened so fast, " Cerda said. "But in order for us to gain the gift of life for our daughter, someone else had to lose theirs. I keep that baby and the family in my prayers all the time.
"I feel like I won the lottery, but I can only imagine their pain."