Even though it had been months since 4-year-old Destany Barker received a life-saving liver transplant, sometimes Barker's stepsister still couldn't help but cry when thinking about all that Destany had endured.
Then Destany would actually do the comforting: "She'd come over to me and say, 'It's OK, sister. It doesn't hurt anymore, see?' rubbing her belly," where a 6-inch scar remains from the surgery, said Victoria Lopez, 17. "Even when she was at her worst, she was the one hugging us saying, 'It's going to be OK.' She's an amazing little girl."
On Wednesday, more than 50 of Destany's friends and family members gathered at a local restaurant to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her liver transplant - long enough to indicate that Destany's body will not reject the liver and that the transplant was a success.
"She's doing really well; there are no signs of rejection or anything," said Destany's mother, Priscilla Masseo.
Destany, herself, had way too much energy to sit in one place during the celebration, but when asked how she feels, she's quick to show the perfectly healed scar just below her rib cage - accompanied by a wide smile.
"She's a normal kid now," said Destany's stepfather, Gabe Lopez,while adoringly watching her run around the restaurant with her friends from day care. "Just to see her run around and be a little kid - it's great."
When Destany was born in February 2009, her skin was jaundiced, prompting doctors to order a series of diagnostic tests. A couple weeks after her birth, Crescent City doctors told Masseo that her daughter's liver was in poor condition and she needed to be immediately flown to University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center for examination. Tests revealed Destany had an inherited disorder that can cause liver disease: alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.
Doctors told Masseo that Destany could live out her entire life without complication or she could need a liver immediately.Destany had frequent doctor visits every few months to monitor her condition, but she remained stable.
"Destany was perfectly fine until August 2011," Masseo said on Wednesday, wearing a UCSF sweat shirt.Then the girl became jaundiced and her abdomen and face swelled alarmingly.
A poster board covered in photographs at Wednesday's celebration demonstrated the severity of Destany's symptoms that summer:brownish-yellow colored skin and a swollen stomach more akin to a third-trimester pregnancy.Across the top, it read: "A rough start."
Destany and her mother flew to San Francisco again, spendinga month undergoing a variety of tests. Destany went on a diet that limited her intake of sodium, which her liver had difficulty processing, and keeping her fluids down to one liter per day to prevent swelling.
Upon returning to Crescent City, the hunt was on for a liver for Destany. Her condition inspired complete strangers to commit time and energy to help in the search.
After seeing a local TV news report about Destany's illness, Crescent City resident Tonya Byrnes was overwhelmed with empathy. A chromosomal condition required Byrnes' own daughter to undergo open heart surgery at 13 months old.
"Something in me just said 'you have to do something - you know what it's like,'" Byrnes said at the celebration.
She created a Facebook page for Destiny's cause and also started a fundraiser to help pay for the family's costs of living in San Francisco while receiving care.
Byrnes had a friend from Portland who was undergoing tests to see if she could donate part of her liver, but Destany's situation suddenly demanded more urgency.
On Feb. 28, 2012, Masseo was driving Destany to San Francisco for yet another test when she started to have a seizure. Two days later, Doctors told Masseo that Destany's condition had worsened to a point where she probably could not leave until she received a liver transplant.
"On March 5, I woke up to the doctors, the surgeons, the anesthesiologists - they were all surrounding her crib, and they told me that they got an offer on a liver," Masseo said. "I thought I was dreaming the whole time they were talking to me.I said, 'Is this a dream or is this real?' They all started laughing and said 'No, this is real. It's a 16-year-old boy from Reno and that's all we can tell you.'"
Masseo later learned that the boy died in a house fire and his family had donated his organs.
As soon as Lopez heard that Destany would be going into surgery, he started driving quickly to San Francisco to be by her side beforehand. A little too quickly.He had to explain the reason for his haste to a highway patrolman, who happened to know Lopez from high school and let him go with a warning.
Another poster board at the celebration was covered in photos and read, "A new beginning." Itshowed Destany coming out of surgery and signs of her quick recovery: skin free of jaundice and abdomen free of swelling.
Throughout Destany's life and especially during recovery, day-care provider Terri Fassio became like a part of the family, Masseo said. Fassio was able to keep Destany on the strict diet plan laid out by doctors.
"I don't take 'no' for an answer when it comes to food and sleep," Fassio said. "She wasn't going to die on my watch."
Fassio's son, Sam Lockyer, who has provided day care to Destany and is known by the young girl as "Uncle Sam," also jetted down to San Francisco right before the surgery to provide support to the family. The family continues to care for Destany.
"It's really nice to see her not have to struggle, wondering when her last breath will be," Lockyer said. "We can let her enjoy life now."
Destany's story has been inspiration for family and strangers alike.
"I tell her she's my hero. She's been through more at 4 years old than most adults," Lopez said.
The experience gave Lopez a new appreciation for medical professionals. The assistant boys basketball coach at Del Norte High School plans to create a fund called "Destany's Angels" that will issue four-figure scholarships for DNHS graduates for as many years as he can keep it going.
"I could never do that kind of job and if someone is willing to do that, I'd like to help them," he said.
Destany's medical bills were covered by California Children's Services, a state program administered by the California Department of Health Care Services for children with certain diseases and health problems.
Reach Adam Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org .