Photographer Mandi Raymond senses she is onto something. All she needs is for Matthew Ouimet, a relentless, adorable, undeniable 2-year-old, to hold a pose.
He cuts a riveting picture, seated on a wooden chair in the middle of a field, backlit by the setting sun. His shirt is off, revealing implanted catheters that dangle from his little torso. They are lifelines for Matthew, who suffers from the genetic condition Primary Hyperoxaluria Type 1. The catheters are used during his six-days-a-week dialysis treatments. Dialysis is his bridge to a liver and kidney transplant and a relatively normal life.
At the foot of the chair is a chalkboard with the handwritten message: Become an organ donor. Raymond plays music on her phone to get Matthew's attention. He recognizes the tune from his favorite TV show and smiles, clasping his hands as if pleading for help. It's actually his sign for Mickey Mouse.
Raymond snaps the shutter.
"She knew as soon as she took that picture she had captured something pretty special," said Kristi Ouimet, Matthew's mom.
Kristi Ouimet and her husband Kelly, with the help of friends and family members, have been shuttling Matthew to dialysis treatments at UCSF Medical Center -- a 94-mile round trip from their Antioch home -- for 22 months, ever since he experienced end-stage renal failure at 5 months old. Matthew has been on the transplant list for 14 months.
The wait has been agonizing for the Ouimets, but in a way uplifting. It seems the longer Matthew waits for his organs, the more hearts he touches.
The picture, for example. It came about because of the Olivia Act, named for a 6-year-old girl killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings a few weeks after posing with her family for a series of professional photographs.
An anonymous photographer, touched by the story, challenged others in the field to donate their time and services to deserving families in their area. Raymond, an Oakley resident and mother of two, chose the Ouimets because she felt a personal connection to their story.
"Especially having a 2-year-old," she said. "Plus, five years ago I was pregnant and lost a set of twins. The thought of losing a child, and having two kids of my own, hit home."
Raymond contacted Kristi Ouimet. A sitting was scheduled, one that included the entire family, including Matthew's brother Patrick, 8, and sister Molly, 10, who has the same rare condition.
"We wanted to include some type of photo that would have a powerful statement behind it," Kristi Ouimet said.
Bingo. Raymond posted the picture of Matthew on her Facebook page. In two weeks it has received 45,000 views.
"It really did capture more than just a little boy in that picture," Kristi Ouimet said. "We've had quite a few people, including Mandi, say it wasn't until they saw this picture that they were compelled to be a donor. It's amazing how one photograph literally is going to save lives."
Kim Hollander is the executive director of the Oxalosis and Hyperoxaluria Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to the rare disease which afflicts Matthew and Molly.
"I've experienced other families going through the same thing," Hollander said, "but no one has done what Kristi has done, to put her life out there for everyone to understand. Seeing Matthew and Kristi on their video (produced by a family friend), you start to feel this major connection with the family."
When Hollander joined the foundation 10 years ago, primary hyperoxaluria was little known even in medical circles. People with the condition have a defective liver enzyme that ends up affecting the kidneys and other organs. While awareness has been raised, she believes Matthew can accelerate the process. She often shows his video when appearing before groups of patients and doctors, and will screen it at a gala fundraiser on May 30 in New York.
"No one walks away dry-eyed," she said.
"It was kind of surreal to hear that we're a part of that," Kristi Ouimet said.
Kristi credits the family's faith for getting them through the commutes to and from dialysis, the three hours of sleep she averages each night, the three times they were told organs were available only to find they weren't a match. She has come to believe that the interminable wait is part of a bigger plan.
"Absolutely," she said. "The longer this goes on, the more I know Matthew is destined for great things. There are so many people he has touched that I can't even comprehend."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/garyscribe.