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Organ Donor Meets Eight-year-old Recipient for First Time

Jason Chen/WAER News

Kelli Maher has never thought she would able to do this while she’s alive.

On the Friday before Christmas at the Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital, she met with a eight-year-old girl who’s survived because of her help.

Maher donated her kidney to Cecilia Brown, who was diagnosed with Stage III renal failure at the age of five.

“The power to save somebody’s life is incredible,” Maher said with tears in her eyes. “It’s the true meaning of Christmas right here.”

A mother of three, Maher said she has a young family member diagnosed with cancer. As a registered organ donor, she says she can’t stop helping others.

“I did know that I could not go to bed at night knowing that somebody was sitting at the dinner table waiting for a phone call,” Maher said. “I can’t imagine looking at my daughter across the table and wondering how long it is going to be before she is healthy again.”

Credit Jason Chen/WAER News
Kelli Maher and Cecilia Brown walked down the hallway together. They met for the first time Friday after Brown received a kidney donated by Maher.

Brown’s mother, Julia Waterman, said she and her husband were very worried that there might not be an available kidney for their daughter because they didn't have a timeframe set for Brown.

During that time, her husband was going to donate his kidney in hope for an exchange of a compatible one for Brown.

“It was our greatest chance at the moment,” Waterman said.

When the mother learned that there was a match for Brown and the surgery could start in three weeks, Waterman said she was overwhelmed.  She said they didn’t expect to have a donor that soon.

“When we announced that they have found the donor for us, we were ecstatic,” Waterman recalled. “Everybody cried because we know how big the impact it would make.”

Credit Jason Chen/WAER News
Kelli Maher and Cecilia Brown met for the first time on the Friday before Christmas.

After the surgery, Waterman said she could not believe that her daughter is full of energy now. Brown has grown three to four inches already since September, she said.

“Until it happened, you don’t realize how big the difference it actually is.” Waterman said.

She said Maher gave them the faith that there are still people willing to help.

“It’s a great opportunity for her to know what kind of impact she has made.” said Waterman with gratitude for Maher. “She would have no idea she was saving a girl’s life.

For Maher, she said Brown is like her own daughter because there is a lot of similarity between her and Brown.

Credit Jason Chen/WAER News
Transplant surgeon Vaughn Whittaker (left), nephrologist (center) and Mark Laftavi (right) spoke to the media about Cecilia Brown's surgery.

“There is things that she likes to do that I did as a child. Her looks, her hair color,” Maher said. “It’s a bond that’s never broken for sure.”

Giving Brown a new life, Maher said she can’t wait to see Brown grow up.

She said what she has done has made it all worth it even though she isn’t ready for Christmas yet.

“This is the absolute true meaning of Christmas,” Maher said.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at