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KC area organ donors remembered at Rose Parade

Updated: 2014-01-01T14:51:55Z

by JENNIFER BHARGAVA

Special to The Star

This morning, Melissa Bensouda will smile and wave to a cheering crowd on national television.

She’s not a movie star. She’s not a politician. She’s a kidney recipient.

The Lee’s Summit mom is one of 30 riders on the Donate Life America float at the Rose Parade. All of them have either received organ, tissue or eye transplants.

Since 2004, the float has served as a memorial to organ and tissue donors.

Adorned with lanterns and dedicated roses, it will also feature more than 80 floragraphs, representing donors from around the nation, and living organ donors walking alongside it. Family members of the floragraph recipients will also be in attendance.

“I’m honored to share this experience with families who have lost loved ones,” Bensouda said. “I can only imagine the grief they’re experiencing. I want to show them the face behind the sacrifice, because real people benefit from it.”

For Bensouda, her parade appearance symbolizes the end to a decade-long struggle.

At 24, she was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease after giving birth to her second daughter. Shortly after her third child, a son, was born, she had lost all kidney function and immediately went on dialysis.

Over the next 10 years, she worked full-time, raised two daughters and a severely autistic son, and maintained a strict dialysis schedule.

On April 16, 2012, Bensouda woke up at 3 a.m. to a phone call from her doctor. A kidney from a deceased donor had been matched to her, just two months before her 10-year anniversary of being put on a waiting list.

“Your hope diminishes each year you’re waiting,” she said. “After being on that list for so long, getting that phone call was absolutely surreal.”

She defines her gift with one simple word: freedom. Without the time-consuming dialysis, Bensouda is free to travel and attend her children’s school activities.

Even though her new kidney is functioning, her disease is not a part of her past.

“There is a need for awareness, for donation, and for early detection of kidney disease,” she said. “People need to understand the risk factors, especially in the minority community. Being active in that aspect will always be a priority to me.”

Bensouda isn’t the only person from the Kansas City area being honored by the Donate Life America float this year. Three others have floragraphs dedicated in their name.

The floragraphs are portraits of each donor made from organic materials, such as seeds, grain, ground-up flowers and coffee grounds.

Noah Davis, a 6-year-old from Shawnee who drowned in June 2012, is being honored for donating both of his kidneys to two different adults.

Rex Tickles, a grandfather from Linwood who passed away in October 2012, is being honored for donating bone and tissue.

And Leslie McLendon, a community leader from Kansas City who passed away from cardiac arrest in December 2012, was honored as well.

Family members of each donor will be sitting in the front row of the parade today. Many of them helped complete the floragraphs of their loved ones earlier last month.

“It was incredible and it looked so much like her,” said Ursula McLendon, Leslie’s sister. “We’re so proud and honored that this provides a way for her legacy to live on.”

Like Bensouda, she sees the parade as a way to relay the importance of saving lives.

“My sister’s life was all about giving back to the community and trying to help others,” said McLendon. “She would have been extremely pleased to know her decision to be an organ donor is making an impact on a national level. She saw it as a gift.”

The Rose parade will be televised at 10 a.m. on ABC, NBC, the Hallmark Channel, Univision and HGTV.

“Losing a loved one is a tragedy, no matter how it happens,” said Tickles’ daughter, Tina Dinkel. “But it makes it easier if you know what their wishes are.”

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