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A doubly miraculous day<br> Finishing high school comes 13 years after life itself was in doubt

Today is a special occasion for Karlita Martin for a couple of reasons.

She graduates from Leonardo da Vinci High School tonight.

Even more important, she's alive.

Both are miraculous achievements for a young cancer survivor and recipient of two liver transplants who at one time was given just 48 hours to live.

That was almost 14 years ago.

But thanks to the liver of a teenage boy from Pennsylvania, Martin has not only survived, but thrived.

"I never thought I was ever going to be able to graduate from high school, so this is a big accomplishment," Martin said Tuesday. "I've been looking forward to it for a long time."

Her parents, Karl and Lynda of Hamlin Road, are overwhelmed by what their daughter has been able to accomplish, given where she started.

"They told me 13 years ago she would probably never make it," Lynda Martin said, "so that alone brings tears of joy."

Karlita was 5 years old in 1996, and enjoying her first week of kindergarten, when her parents noticed blood in her urine.

The diagnosis was Stage 3 kidney cancer.

Doctors were able to remove her cancerous kidney, but the chemotherapy took an unexpected toll on the little girl.

She suffered liver failure and was eventually flown to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, where doctors gave her 48 hours to live unless she got a new liver.

Which she did.

Within 24 hours, Karlita received the liver of a 56-year-old West Virginia man, but the family's relief again turned to pain when Karlita's body began to reject the transplanted organ.

Even if Karlita were to somehow find another donor, doctors didn't know whether she could withstand another 20-hour transplant surgery.

That's when the Martins met the McCreadys in the hospital waiting room.

Robert and Candy McCready were there for their boy, 13-year-old Robert Jr., who had been hit by a tractor-trailer near their home in New Galilee, Pa.

The McCreadys were charmed by the Martins' youngest daughter, Kiara, then 2, who sang them songs, and as the two families waited that day, they talked and consoled each other.

The next morning, the Martins received a call from doctors that Karlita would receive another liver.

Later, they would learn the donor was Robby McCready, who had died from his injuries. His parents donated the boy's organs and specified that his liver be given to Karlita.

It has connected the two families to this day.

They talk on the phone at least once a month. Over the years, the Martins have traveled to McCready baby showers and funerals. The McCreadys meet the Martins for dinner each November in Erie, Pa., where they catch up with Karlita. "For them," Lynda Martin said, "it's like Robby lives."

Karlita is a B-plus student and carries a part-time job with Simpson & Associates, a tax service in Buffalo.

She likes to shop and talk on the phone and get her nails done. She was on Da Vinci's prom and yearbook committees. She sings and dances. She's active in her church, Word of Life Ministries in Niagara Falls, which has kept her faith strong in her times of illness.

It has been a tough road.

Doctors originally thought Karlita would be brain-damaged and spend her life in a wheelchair, after twice having to revive her on the operating table. Over the years, she was in and out of the hospital, and endured numerous surgeries.

But gradually, Karlita got better.

In fact, she remained healthy during much of high school, until March, when she had her first setback in years, and had to return to Pittsburgh for nearly two weeks of treatment.

She's back in Buffalo now.

"I think I'm a miracle," Karlita said.

Armed with college credits from taking Advanced Placement courses, Karlita is headed to Hilbert College in the fall, where she plans to study business administration. She hopes to own her own cosmetology salon someday.

But for now, she'll settle for graduating -- and not tripping while walking across the stage.

"When she walks across that stage," her mother said, "the whole family receives a diploma."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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