Grad reaches day that might not have been
Updated 10:45 pm, Sunday, May 18, 2014
BRIDGEPORT -- As Alison Cubbellotti stood on the stage of the Webster Bank Arena Sunday while a sea of her fellow Sacred Heart University graduates gave her a standing ovation, her mind drifted back to four years ago, when she lay in a hospital bed wondering if she was going to live or die.
Next to Cubbellotti on the stage, his arm around her back, stood John Vales. Not coincidentally, he was having the same vision. He, too, had been lying in a hospital bed at Yale-New Haven Hospital four years ago -- his life in the balance after giving a life-savings piece of his liver to save Cubbellotti.
"It was just so surreal," Cubbellotti said after Sunday's ceremony. "This day has been a culmination of all I have worked for, all I have cried for. And I wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for John."
But Vales, a 2010 graduate of Sacred Heart, brushed aside any talk of his personal heroism.
"This is Alison's day, this ovation was for her, she earned it and she deserves it," he said.
The Cubbellotti family lives in Trumbull. And Alison Cubbellotti, who was born on July 4th, was a spirited girl, according to her mother, Karen Cubbellotti. But Alison was diagnosed when she was 9 with a rare and incurable liver disease known as PSC.
"It's a disease that usually ends in either death or a transplant, but Alison was determined it was not going to stop her," Karen Cubbellotti said.
Five years ago, the disease finally took its toll, and the young woman who had dreamed of becoming a nurse found herself in critical condition in the hospital.
"She was literally at death's door," said her father, Joe Cubbellotti. "That's how the priest put it to us."
The only thing that could save her was a partial liver transplant, but no one in her family was a donor compatible.
In desperation, her mother said, she put a plea for help on an email on the Sacred Heart University network.
And that's where Vales comes in.
An engineering major at the school from Westchester, he had never heard of Alison Cubbellotti.
"But that plea from her mother really got to me," he recounted. "I just couldn't stop thinking about it. If I had a little sister, I know if something like this was happening to her, I would hope that someone would come forward and do the same thing I did."
With the consent of his parents Vales, was tested and found to be a good match to give a portion of his liver to Cubbellotti.
The operation done at Yale-New Haven in October 2009 by Dr. Sukru Emre appeared to go well, but Vales developed complications, and for a while his health appeared to be in question. He missed a month of classes, which school administrators allowed him to make up.
"I'm 100 percent now, and that's all that matters," Vales said. "It's like it never happened."
For Cubbellotti, it was a long road back to health. There were complications, and at one point doctors told her she had only a month to live. She ended up going through three additional surgeries.
"There were times I felt like giving up, just closing my eyes and letting it all end," she said, "but I had such a strong support system, between my family and John, they just wouldn't let me."
"Oh, Alison's such a spitfire -- it's just not in her nature to give up," added her mother.
Eventually, she healed and Cubbellotti, 24, resumed classes at Sacred Heart graduating two years later than she originally planned.
After graduating, Vales, who turns 26 on Thursday, went to work at his family's construction company. He agreed to stand with Cubbellotti when she received her diploma.
"He is such a big part of my life now because, I wouldn't have a life if it weren't for him," said Cubbellotti. "He is like my older brother."
"And she is like my little sister," added Vales.
firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-330-6308; http://twitter.com/dantepfer