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Gift of life just keeps on giving Clarence parents who donated son's heart bask in glow of next generation

Twin baby girls from Long Island, swaddled in a lot of pink, gurgled and fussed Saturday morning in the Clarence home of the Gianaddas -- a family whose decision more than seven years ago made this moment possible.

Inside the baby girls' mother, Lisa Savarese, beats a Gianadda heart.

On June 25, 1999, the night before he was to graduate from Clarence High School, Daniel Gianadda suffered a traumatic head injury that left him brain dead.

"Look at what's happened," said Daniel's father, Paul Gianadda, 53, as he gazed at the 7-month-old babies and their parents Saturday. "This was a blessing. . . that so much good has come."

Savarese, 40, and her husband, Vinnie, 39, brought their little girls from their home in Freeport, N.Y., to Clarence for a three-day weekend with the Gianaddas, who have become a second family to them.

"It's been beautiful," Vinnie Savarese said. "It's unfortunate how we got together. But look at this. They have beautiful children. . . I was given two children."

Diane Gianadda recalled the ordeal of losing her son.

She remembered seeing the extent of Daniel's injuries as he lay in a bed at Erie County Medical Center and starting to realize that he might never wake up.

Distraught and exhausted, she recalled laying her head down on a nurse's station desk. She looked up and noticed a sticker about organ donation on a telephone.

"Could someone tell me about organ donation?" she asked a nurse.

"If and when the time comes, we'll explain it to you," the nurse responded.

On June 26, a day after the accident, Daniel was declared brain dead, and his parents agreed to allow his organs to be harvested.

"It wasn't difficult," Diane Gianadda said of the decision. "Daniel was a very healthy child. We told them: Use whatever you can use. Daniel would want it that way."

>Condition worsens

As the Gianaddas were letting their son go, Lisa Savarese was fighting to live.

She had lived for 4 1/2 years with an enlarged heart, a condition she developed after contracting a virus while in the hospital after delivering her second child.

But in May 1999, her condition suddenly grew worse, and doctors told her she would die without a heart transplant.

On the night of June 26, 1999, she recalled feeling horribly sick with pneumonia and being surprised when a nurse came into her room at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan to tell her a heart -- Daniel's -- had become available.

"I didn't want it," Savarese said, because she thought she was too weak for heart surgery. "But the doctor said, 'You don't have time.' I didn't realize how sick I was."

Daniel's heart was flown from Buffalo to New York City, and by the following morning, it was beating strongly inside Savarese's chest.

Several days after the surgery, a nurse told Savarese that, if she was interested, she could write a letter to the family of her heart donor -- but that she couldn't know anything about them unless they consented and she wanted them to know who she was.

The nurse also explained that many transplant recipients write the letters on the anniversaries of the day they got the organs.

"It's like another birthday," Savarese explained.

>Unanswered letters

A year to the day after Savarese got her heart, she wrote a letter to the Gianaddas. They received it, but Diane Gianadda said she didn't feel ready to write back at that time.

The next year, Savarese wrote again. Still, Diane Gianadda wasn't ready.

When the third anniversary came, Savarese decided not to write -- fearing she was upsetting the donors' family by writing.

But her mother insisted. Around January of 2003, she wrote again, and this time included pictures of her two children.

Diane Gianadda wrote back.

They exchanged numbers, and Diane Gianadda finally gathered the courage to call Savarese.

They arranged to meet in Long Island during Memorial Day weekend of 2003. Tom Gianadda, one of Daniel's brothers, was in the Navy and would be in New York City for the Fleet Week celebration.

The Gianaddas drove to the Savarese home. Everyone was nervous, but when Diane and Lisa saw each other, they wrapped their arms around each other and hugged for 10 minutes.

"She made me feel her heart beating," Diane Gianadda recalled.

The two families went out for dinner and Lisa Savarese gave out special gifts.

She gave Paul Gianadda and his sons watches, "because they gave me the gift of time," she explained.

She gave the Gianaddas' daughter, Sarah, a ring and matching bracelet made of heart-shaped pieces. And to Diane, she gave a heart-shaped diamond pendant.

"We were all bawling," Diane Gianadda recalled.

They continued their friendship, visiting each other's homes on Long Island and in Clarence.

Savarese invited the Gianaddas to her wedding to Vinnie and seated them with her family.

Lisa, who recovered well from her heart transplant, was now ready to have a baby with her new husband.

"Get prepared to be a grandmother," Lisa told Diane, who was touched by the thought that the woman with her son's heart now considered her family.

>Rejects 'reduction'

But Savarese struggled. After four miscarriages, she got pregnant again and was stunned by shocking news: she was going to have fraternal twins.

Her doctor warned her of the potential risks she faced because of her heart transplant and suggested that she might consider "selective reduction" -- terminating one of the twins to increase the chances of survival for the other.

She would have none it.

"I had a good feeling about it," she said.

Savarese suffered from high blood pressure during her pregnancy, and as her condition worsened, doctors decided she needed to have her babies early.

They were born June 21.

First came Samantha Danielle, named after Daniel, and then Alexa Rose. Both were small but healthy and had to spend several days in the neonatal unit.

Shortly after the girls came home, the Gianaddas came for a visit.

Lisa grabbed Diane's hand and pulled her into the house.

"You've got to see this," she told her.

A few weeks earlier, one of Savarese's relatives noticed a little birthmark on the back of Samantha's neck.

It looked like a little pink cut. But then it began to puff out.

The birthmark on the baby had grown into the shape of a heart.

"They say God works in mysterious, strange ways," Paul Gianadda said. "It's a sign of faith, love, God, my son and his legacy living on."

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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