Sitting poolside with his wife and two daughters, Rhett Shaffette says he’s already received the best gift this Father’s Day.
His 12-year-old daughter is thriving, eight months after getting a portion of his liver. She received the transplant after nearly losing her life to internal bleeding.
“It was a very close call,” Rhett said. His daughter Cecilia, 11 at the time, had spent years in frustration on the transplant list, and was twice called to be a back-up recipient, only to be sent home again in disappointment.
After Cecilia's near-fatal bleed last year, the family decided to look instead for a partial transplant from a living donor.
And they didn't have to look far: Tests and scans revealed that Rhett’s liver was an ideal match. A few weeks later, both were prepped for surgery.
“It was a godsend," Rhett said. "That’s the only way to explain it.”
Cecilia had been suffering since birth with biliary atresia. That's when bile ducts in the liver don't form normally, preventing the organ from functioning properly. It’s one of the most common reasons why children in the U.S. require liver transplants, said John Seal, one of the surgeons on the family’s transplant team at Ochsner Hospital for Children in New Orleans.
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Having a biological parent as a living donor helps with immunity and lowers the chance of organ rejection. But some kids awaiting transplants are in foster care or situations where a biological parent isn’t available or willing to donate. So now there’s a movement among pediatric surgeons and programs across the country to push for more anonymous living donors, Seal said.
Organs from living donors have been found to be superior in quality to those harvested from deceased donors, he said. And because the liver regenerates quickly, children and small adults typically only need a part of a healthy donor’s liver. Both patients can typically expect their livers to return to normal size within a few months to a year, Seal said.
“No kid should die waiting for a liver,” he said. “The biggest risk is that time waiting for an organ, and that wait time is getting longer and longer throughout the country.”
Living donors made possible 491 of the 8,906 liver transplants performed in the United States last year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit that administers the nation’s procurement and transplant process.
More than 500 of last year’s liver transplants were performed on children, but only 66 were from living donors. And of those, only 22 donors were the child’s biological parent, according to UNOS.
“We still don’t have enough quality donors to take care of all the kids on the wait list,” Seal said.
More than 300 children remain on the waiting list for a liver transplant in the U.S., along with more than 11,500 adults, according to UNOS..
Cecilia's mother, Angelle, described transplant day as long, exhausting, stressful, emotional, but in the end, worth it.
Eight months later, Rhett says he's feeling great, is back at work and enjoying his favorite pastimes, hunting and fishing. He said he's “anxious to see her be all that she can be, now that nothing's holding her back.”
He and Angelle smiled and giggled while watching Cecilia, now 12, play a game of tag on hoverboards with her little sister, Lydia. The girls also practiced some dance moves, with Cecilia showing off her leaps and twirls.
Before the transplant, this much activity would have fatigued and stressed her body, at times causing pain, discomfort or illness.
“I have a lot more energy, and I don't feel bad a lot," Cecilia said. She said it's been five months since her last trip to the hospital.
“I just feel better overall," she said.
Her parents see her improving as well.
“She doesn't wake us up in the middle of the night and tell us she's nauseous or she doesn't feel good,” Angelle said. "She's like a normal kid now.”
Cecilia knows how fortunate she is, thanks to her father's love and generosity.
“I'm very lucky and grateful that he could do this for me," she said. “I have an awesome dad. He's always been my hero."