When Sturgill required regular hospital admissions to treat complications from her disease, her caregivers talked to her about the option of using a living donor for her transplant. Living donor liver transplantation involves removing a healthy section of liver from the live donor and then transplanting it into the recipient immediately following removal of the diseased or damaged liver.
“There is a far greater need for livers than there are available deceased donors; annually more than 1,500 people die waiting for a liver transplant,” said Michael Abecassis, MD, MBA, chief of the division of organ transplantation at Northwestern Memorial and dean of clinical affairs at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Living donor liver transplants are far less common than living donor kidney and much more complex, but can significantly broaden the donor pool.”
Upon learning that a living donor was an option, Sturgill’s niece was quickly tested as a potential donor. Three weeks later, the family received word that she was not a suitable match because her liver was too small.
“My niece was devastated because we thought for sure she would be my donor,” Sturgill explained. “I told her everything would be okay; God was with us.”
After her niece was unable to donate, Sturgill turned to her other family: The Northwest Church of Christ on Chicago’s northwest side. The congregation ran a story in its newsletter about Sturgill’s search for a living donor. Michelle Bain, MD, a fellow member of the congregation, stepped forward and offered to get tested. Having known Sturgill for many years, Bain was already familiar with her health issues.
“I’ve been a blood donor my entire life, so I thought what’s another organ,” said Bain, who is a dermatologist. “I didn’t know exactly what was involved with the surgery, but it was fascinating to learn about. Two weeks after being tested, I found out that I was able to be Roberta’s donor.”
For Sturgill, knowing her liver was coming from a living donor rather than being a cadaver organ was a comforting factor. “A living donor gives the feeling of knowing that someone is alive, I felt better about that,” Sturgill said. “I spent 15 years on the transplant list; it took less than one year to find a living donor.”
A living donor transplant is possible because of the liver’s regenerative capabilities. “Between 55 to 70 percent of the donor’s liver is removed during the surgery, but within four to six weeks it will regain full function and size,” said Abecassis. “The transplanted portion will take somewhat longer than it did for the donor, but eventually it too will gain full function and grow larger in size.”
Sturgill and Bain both had successful surgeries and continue to do well. Bain was released from the hospital after two days and was back at work in less than two weeks. Sturgill spent four days in the hospital and one week at a nearby hotel recovering. After years of illness, the grandmother of 12 is feeling the best she has in decades.
“God was the pilot and the transplant team was the co-pilot; Michelle was the angel who made the transplant possible,” said Sturgill. “I am so grateful for our successful surgery. It was the most amazing experience. I haven’t had a sick day since the transplant.”
Thankful for her good fortune and improved health, Sturgill notes simple things such as going up the stairs and shopping without getting out of breath as positive changes in her life post-transplant. She continues to visit Northwestern Memorial’s transplant clinic monthly for blood work and tests. Grateful for her positive outcomes, she has shared her experience with another patient who had questions about the living donor process.
Following their shared transplant experience, the two women’s friendship has blossomed and they have grown closer as they continue to bond post-surgery. Bain maintains that there was little sacrifice on her part and the most important outcome was Sturgill’s health.
“The only reminder I have of the surgery is a scar,” said Bain. “Roberta has been wonderful and showered me with kindness and wonderful things. Hopefully, she’s at a point now where she’ll be okay going forward.”
Northwestern Memorial’s living donor liver program is one of the leading in the country. Since its inception in 2007, more than 145 adult living donor liver transplants have been performed with excellent results for both donors and recipients. “By performing living donor liver transplantation, we can offer an innovative way of reducing the waiting time for our patients who need a liver,” said Abecassis. “There is no waiting period and the surgery can be scheduled at a convenient time for the donor and recipient. Living donors must be in good health, over the age of 18 and have a compatible blood type with the organ recipient.”
To learn more about Northwestern Memorial’s living donor liver program, call 312-695-0870 or visit the Kovler Organ Transplantation Center’s website.