Young Woman’s “Heart of Gold” Transforms Little Girl’s Life: The Story of Amber and Emily

Young Woman’s “Heart of Gold” Transforms Little Girl’s Life: The Story of Amber and Emily

Chances are that Tina and Emily would have never met. They live more than 1,000 miles apart – one in near perpetual rain in the northwest corner of the state, the other at the edge of the Mohave Desert, in the southernmost part of their home state. 

It would take the death of Tina’s daughter, Amber, at the age of 19 to start their unexpected relationship.

Emily, a vivacious and sweet toddler whose family lives in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., can see clearly out of one of her eyes thanks to a cornea recovered from Amber.

Amber was an outgoing and strong-willed young woman who intensely loved the outdoors, football, her friends, and her family. She was the only granddaughter of her generation (with six other grandsons to compete), but no one would ever mistake her for a spoiled princess. Amber had a caregiver’s heart and lived very intentionally. She was there for each of her friends and family in the ways they needed them. You could always count on her. 

“She was our princess, but definitely not a princess,” said Leslie , Amber’s aunt and Tina’s sister, remembering how Amber didn’t like to wear dresses. “She meant a lot to a lot of people in this community.”

Amber died unexpectedly from complications associated with undiagnosed Type 1 diabetes on Dec. 1, 2020, just two weeks after her 19th birthday. She had been a registered organ donor since earning her driver’s license at 16. Unfortunately, her illness made her organs unsuitable for donation with one exception – her corneas could still help somebody with the gift of sight.

When a coordinator from SightLife called Amber’s family to ask for their permission to recover Amber’s corneas for transplantation, Tina did not hesitate.

“She’d told me ‘If I’m not going to use it, somebody else can’,” Tina said. “This was important to her.” 

Amber’s corneas were recovered by a technician from SightLife, and the tissue was inspected and prepared for transplant by a partner who distributes corneas for transplant all over the United States and internationally.

At six months old, Emily developed an eye cyst that blocked her tear duct and clouded her cornea. Her eye did not respond well to repair surgery and treatment. Left untreated, her young brain would ignore the signals from the damaged eye, rendering it useless.

“She would cry and her eye would swell up,” said Arisbeth, Emily’s mom. “Other kids would say ‘look at her eye.’ As her mom, that hurt a lot.”

As fate would have it, Amber’s donation would restore Emily’s vision, and they arranged for the transplant with their surgeon. The transplant was a success, and after a few months of healing, Amber had regained most of the unclouded vision in the injured eye.

“She is now a regular little girl,” Arisbeth said. “She loves to read.”

When Tina learned that her daughter’s cornea had been successfully transplanted into another young girl, she was thrilled. But something remained unresolved. Tina and her family wanted to learn more about the recipient, and to see her daughter again in the eyes of that person. “Do good and good will come to you.” That’s Amber’s mantra. And in this final act of good, she’s given her family and friends a hope that wouldn’t have existed without this donation. 

Over a year after Arisbeth and Jose, Emily’s father, sent a letter to the family sharing their daughter’s story, and Amber’s family replying and sharing Amber’s, a video meeting was arranged for the two families to meet. A friend offered the meeting place – an old church converted into a gathering space in the small town of Clatskanie, OR.

When the time finally came, Tina and Leslie first met Emily, Arisbeth and Jose. They exchanged laughter and tears, showed each other family pictures. Then four generations of Amber’s family gathered around the laptop, sharing stories about Amber’s life with Emily’s family. It was also important to the family that Amber’s friends could share in this moment as well. She loved her friends. This is the way she lived.

“I hope you know you’ve gained a huge family,” Tina said. “We have a lot of love for your little girl. She holds a special place in my heart.”

“We could not be more thankful,” Arisbeth said. “Amber had a heart of gold.”