When volunteers for The Buffalo News Neediest Fund saw Tracey Gonzales of Lancaster six years ago, the then-sixth-grader at William Street School was losing weight, down to only 80 pounds.
Today, the 17-year-old is one of the success stories of the annual holiday drive. Her story was featured in The News in 1998 when she was 11 years old and the family lived in a Lancaster apartment with no heat.
The world's first survivor of a liver-small intestine transplant, Tracey is a senior at Lancaster High School with dreams of becoming a doctor.
"It's what I grew up knowing," said Tracey, who has applied to several area colleges.
While the cost of medical emergencies throughout the years eliminated many of the extras and luxuries that children love, the Neediest Fund gave her happy Christmas memories, like the sight of clothes and toys under the Christmas tree.
That joyous scene will be repeated for thousands of Western New York families this season through the contributions of cash and toys made to the Neediest Fund drive.
"It was wonderful to see the children's eyes when they saw that tree," remembers Tracey's mother, Pamela Harzynski. "The eyes express so much."
Harzynski notes that the News Neediest Fund "is a very good effort." Her daughter adds that it's important to help families in a financial crunch because "it can happen to anyone."
These days, Tracey returns the goodwill by volunteering with senior citizens. She's already interning at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, and she works part time at the Lancaster public library.
"She works hard," says the teen's supervisor, William Sutton, director of the Lancaster library. "Tracey's friendly and polite -- she's great."
Early in life, Tracey was diagnosed with short-gut syndrome. Because her small intestine couldn't absorb nutrients, she was fed intravenously for almost three years. In most cases like hers, the liver is destroyed from using intravenous nutrients.
Before Tracey only three children had liver-small intestine transplants and none of those children survived a year. But the doctors decided to give it one more try with Tracey.
Up to that point, her life had been filled with crises, like the morning she woke with a high fever and couldn't breathe, just before the transplant.
In school, some of her elementary classmates were not always kind, teasing her about her surgical scars.
After her transplant, Tracey was put on a respirator for a few days. Heavily sedated, with antibiotics and drugs that
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regulated her blood pressure, Tracey was able to turn the corner and start on the road to recovery.
The teen is still under medical care, notes her mom, who adds that "her kidneys have been beaten up." Their next challenge is to get her kidneys to "function right."
Harzynski, who also has two sons, says she's looking forward to Tracey's high school graduation in the spring.