Richland High grad, liver recipient heading into medical field

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJuly 13, 2014 

Sonja Saenz underwent two liver transplants by the time she was 6 years old.

And the young woman, who graduated from Richland High School in 2012, has dealt with other health problems since. But she hasn't let that stop her from going after her goals in life.

"She wants to join the medical world, go figure. I said, 'You're not tired of that?' " her mother, Mona Gonzalez-Tricker, told the Herald with a laugh.

Saenz, who turned 21 last week, recently moved to Seattle and will begin classes in the fall to become a medical assistant. She is thinking of working at Seattle Children's Hospital, where she spent years being treated.

And she has her sights set on eventually becoming a nurse or doctor. Her experiences as a patient will give her particular insight.

"That's why I chose the medical field. I know how it feels, what it is to be on the other side," she said.

The Herald recently caught up with Saenz and her mom, years after the paper featured them as Saenz went through her liver transplants.

The first one happened in 1998, when Saenz was 4. She and her mother, her father Daniel Saenz and her two younger siblings -- brother Marcel, now 19, and sister Sofia, now 17 -- were living in Sunnyside. Sonja, who had been healthy, had grown tired, felt some pain and her eyes took on a yellow tint.

She was taken to Seattle and put on the transplant list. She got a new liver that April.

But her body rejected the organ, and she grew even sicker. She had a second transplant in 1999.

It hasn't been all smooth sailing since. Saenz has faced other health challenges as the result of the medications she had to take to keep her body from rejecting the new liver, including leg and thyroid problems. But she has kept a positive attitude.

At 4-foot-6, Saenz -- who eventually will need another liver transplant -- is tenacious, her mother said. She's amazing, and "not just because she's my daughter. She never complains. She doesn't have the, 'I can't' attitude," Gonzalez-Tricker said.

Her health struggles weren't the only challenges her family faced. Daniel Saenz died in a car accident in May 1999, while his daughter was awaiting her second transplant.

Gonzalez-Tricker was suddenly a single mom.

But the family stuck together. And happier times lay ahead. Gonzalez-Tricker, who now lives in Hermiston and works at the Pasco library, has found love again, recently marrying. The family gathered to celebrate Saenz's birthday last week.

Gonzalez-Tricker said she's proud of her daughter -- for her perseverance, her can-do attitude. Mother and daughter both have become advocates for organ donation.

Gonzalez-Tricker said she is grateful to the families of her daughter's two donors. It's an altruistic act, she told the Herald. "My message, my thought is, isn't that why we're all here? We're here to take care of each other," she said.

Organ donation "can mean a lot to a family," Saenz said. Like it has to hers.

-- Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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