Bonnie and Jillian Di Bernardo had an extra surprise at a party for Jillian’s success at the transplant games

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Dr. Roberto Hernandez-Alejandro remembers telling Jillian Di Bernardo that he’d be performing a liver transplant on her ailing mother.

Just weeks later, the surgeon informed a recovering Bonnie Di Bernardo that he’d be doing the same procedure on her daughter.

“The next morning I put Bonnie in a wheelchair . . . and I walked her to the ICU and said, ‘Let’s go see your daughter together,’ ” said Hernandez-Alejandro. “It was a very emotional moment.”

Now the head of the transplant division at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., Hernandez-Alejandro returned to London to see his two former patients, both of whom suffer from a hereditary disease affecting their livers.

Friends of Jillian Di Bernardo organized a surprise party to celebrate her return from the World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain, where she recently won two silver medals in swimming events.

The 30-year-old was shocked to see the faces of dozens of family members and friends on the rooftop patio of McCabe’s on Sunday.

But she was especially surprised to see Hernandez-Alejandro, who made the nearly four-hour drive with his wife Ximena and their three kids.

“In a way I’m not surprised that he’d do that,” Jillian said. “I can tell he truly cares about my progress and my mom’s progress.”

It’s not unusual for Hernandez-Alejandro to combine his two passions: family and medicine. He had brought his son, now 10, to see Bonnie Di Bernardo while she was in the hospital.

Performing liver transplants on a mother and daughter was a first for Hernandez-Alejandro, who spent 12 years at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) before being recruited last year to Rochester, where he has built a team of top doctors from across North America.

Jillian Di Bernardo made headlines across the globe after her online plea for a live liver donor went viral in 2015. The Ottawa Senators even appealed to their legion of fans, just as the NHL team did for team owner Eugene Melnyk before an anonymous live liver donor came forward.

Bonnie Di Bernardo, who was also on the liver transplant waiting list, underwent transplant surgery in February 2016. Weeks later, a liver from a deceased person was found for her daughter, whose health was rapidly deteriorating.

“This is why organ donation is so important,” Hernandez-Alejandro said of the mother-daughter success story.

“The biggest challenge of transplantation is the lack of organs.”

About 20 per cent of Canadians are registered as donors, and more than 1,600 people are added to organ wait lists annually, according to the Canadian Transplant Society.

Hernandez-Alejandro predicted the future is bright for Jillian Di Bernardo, now an outspoken advocate for organ donor awareness.

“She’s on fire,” he said. “I don’t know where she’s going to go but she’s going to do well.”

During his one-day stop in London, Hernandez-Alejandro also visited his mentor, Dr. Bill Wall, the retired director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at LHSC who performed Canada’s first successful liver transplant in 1982.

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