ANTIOCH -- A year ago Thursday, Matthew Ouimet awoke from a 13-hour surgery for a life-sustaining liver and kidney transplant, beginning a road to recovery that has captivated the community and inspired a host of good works.
"It really has been like a stone thrown into a pond, because there has been a ripple effect where he has touched so many hearts," said the Rev. Robert Rien, of St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Church, who baptized Matthew as an infant when his family feared the worst.
The 3-year-old's health, though still delicate, continues to improve at home, where he is starting to enjoy normal childhood routines after a lifetime of hospital visits. He no longer needs a catheter but still uses a feeding tube, takes several medications to prevent his tiny body from rejecting the organs, and is easily injured because of his fragile condition.
But his impact has been powerful: Three local blood drives in honor of Matthew and the man whose organs saved him have netted 320 pints of blood. More than a dozen people, inspired by Matthew's story, have told the family they decided to donate a deceased loved one's organs. And he has provided hope for countless families with sick children, including one going through a strikingly similar ordeal 3,000 miles away.
Wearing a "Pow!" superhero T-shirt with a red cape stitched on the back, Matthew made his first public appearance May 19 to promote blood and organ donation for the American Red Cross at Dozier-Libbey Medical High School.
"To say here's a real-life example, and watch him interact and totally be a kid, it's more powerful than a flier or a slide show," said Kristi Ouimet, Matthew's mother.
Junior Lexi Kincade said seeing Matthew and hearing his story was an "eye-opener," and prompted her to volunteer.
"When he lifted his shirt (and revealed his scars), it was hard to ignore," she said.
Watching the bubbly toddler sing and dance at the event brought home just how far he has come since being diagnosed at 5 months with end-stage renal failure, a symptom of a rare genetic disorder called primary hyperoxaluria Type 1.
He was placed on dialysis at UC San Francisco for 22 months while awaiting the transplant.
Last June, 22-year-old Brandon Burnett died in a car accident, and his organs were found to be a match for Matthew. The Ouimets have since met Brandon's mom, Maggie Kolb, and become close with the family.
"To see Matthew's transformation, and to know he has a chance because of the healthy organs from my son, it's such a blessing," Kolb said. "It's kind of comforting, and brings me some joy among all the sadness."
Kelly and Kristi Ouimet have publicly shared their story in the hope of motivating more people to donate tissue and organs, and they plan to take on a greater role as Matthew's recovery continues.
"Any opportunity we have to speak to change minds and promote organ donation, we're trying to take," Kristi said.
Among those who have been inspired is Matthew's uncle, Jimmy Wisecarver, an Antioch police corporal.
"He's touched so many people during his short life. Just the hell and pain his little body's been through, to have the strength to endure it all," he said.
Wisecarver plans to use Matthew's story of mental endurance as part of a training video for the department's SWAT team.
In addition to local support, Kristi has bonded with others dealing with the same excruciating wait, including the family of 5-year-old Damien McCauley, of Washington, D.C. Damien had a liver and kidney transplant almost two years ago, but his body rejected the kidney.
"I feel as if (the Ouimets) are an extended section of family," said Gail Dye, Damien's mother.
Matthew's new organs have posed some challenges, and his brittle bones and thin blood have left him with broken arms and prone to deep bruising. Even so, the Ouimet family has been able to settle into a far more normal routine.
Gone are the 96-mile trips to San Francisco six days a week for dialysis. Matthew's days are much like a recent morning, when he watched his favorite show, "Little Einsteins," and played catch with a foam baseball with his father, Kelly, home after working graveyard as an Antioch police officer.
Next, Matthew worked on motor skills by walking up and down stairs with Kristi and gripping a pencil. Later, he played with his brother Patrick and sister Molly.
While prepping syringes containing a mixture of nutritional drink PediaSure and water, which Matthew receives each hour in 6-ounce doses through a feeding tube, Kristi explained that he needs one medication twice a day to prevent his body from rejecting the new organs, another three times a day to reduce uric acid, a blood thinner, and iron and yet another medication for acid reflux.
The toddler still has to go once a week for lab tests -- trips Matthew knows are coming because he starts saying "No owies!" about a half-mile away, Kristi said. The hope is that those trips become less frequent.
"Every setback is a scare, or when there is a bad lab or something appears abnormal," Kelly said.
The family hopes to be able to take more trips and attend more events in the coming months, including a camping trip to Lake Tahoe. However, some plans are canceled because of the risk to Matthew's health.
"I'm torn. He wants to do big boy things, but I can't let him do too much," Kristi said.
Dye tries to help Kristi keep things in perspective.
"It's sad when he gets those little bumps and bruises, but he's able to run and play and be a little kid," she said. "Before, he was tethered to a machine."
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.
According to the California Transplant Donor Network, there are nearly 4,000 people waiting for an organ transplant in the East Bay and Silicon Valley; 885 people in Contra Costa County, 1,390 people in Alameda County and 1,684 in Santa Clara County.
The Team Matthew Blood Drive will be held noon to 6 p.m. July 10-11 at St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Church, 3351 Contra Loma Blvd. For more information, call 1-800-RED CROSS.
A Golf Tournament for Matthew will be held at 1 p.m. Aug. 1 at Lone Tree Golf Course. Proceeds will go to the Children's Organ Transplant Association. For more information, call 510-773-9364.
To find out more about local blood drives or the requirements for giving blood, visit redcrossblood.org. To become an organ donor, visit donatelife.net or www.cota.org.