HAMDEN – “It wasn’t scary in the moment, but it’s scary looking back now,” says 23-year-old Madison Ricci, getting a workout in at Sleeping Giant State Park after suffering lupus and getting a liver transplant in 2019 as a sophomore in college.

“There were some complications. I had scar tissue in a bile duct, so we had to do a drain. Seventeen surgeries,” Ricci said.

But she powered through, going back and forth from Florida to Connecticut almost every month.

She reached a tremendous milestone in early May – graduating from the University of Tampa.

“I’m so excited to be done, but I’m also really grateful to my family in Florida who helped me, my family here that helped me, and the community just really kept me going,” Ricci said.

And that community is here at Miracle for Maddie, a Facebook page her mom created when the family desperately sought a donor who ended up being a stranger, Jaelin Highsmith, who Maddie now calls a friend.

“We talk all the time about it, and it’s still crazy to us how it just happened,” she said.

“It’s truly amazing how it works. I’m definitely going to do it later in my life. I definitely want to help someone else in need,” said younger brother, Max, who wants to raise awareness about being a living donor.

Highsmith donated part of his liver to Ricci. Both parts regenerated, and now both of them have normal-sized, functioning organs.

Ricci says the whole experience changed her perspective on life.

“I think I’m more understanding because I had an invisible disease, so everybody’s going through something, but sometimes you can’t see it,” she said.

Ricci wove her unique story into graduation with a quote on her cap.

“It says, ‘All that I am and hope to be, I owe to those who believed in me,'” she said.

It’s a sentiment that represents her past and future.

“I’m excited, and I’m grateful because I didn’t see myself here four years ago. I’m elated to be here,” Ricci said with a big smile.

Ricci hopes to further her education at Quinnipiac University to become a physician’s assistant, a career choice inspired by the people who’ve shown her great care.