Twenty-seven years after Trine Engebretsen, the first liver transplant recipient in Florida, won over a nation when President Ronald Reagan mentioned her in a radio address about organ transplants, Andersen is believed to be the first child born to parents who are both liver transplant recipients.
On Wednesday, Andersen was quiet through most of a joyous news conference at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center where Engebretsen and husband Ryan Labbe, both 30, and their physicians—transplant pioneer Andreas Tzakis, M.D., Ph.D., and obstetrics expert Salih Yasin, M.D.—answered questions about how the two liver recipients fell in love, the potential risks their parenthood posed, and the important roles the two Miller School physicians and their colleagues played throughout the long process.
“In principle, when you see Trine and Ryan, you see two patients who remind us we work not just for patient survival, but for their well-being, their quality of life, and for the perpetuation of a happy and productive life,” said Tzakis, professor of surgery and director of the Miller School’s Liver/GI Transplant Program, who assisted with Engebretsen’s 1984 transplant while a trainee at a Pittsburgh hospital and began caring for her soon after at UM/Jackson.
Decades later, Trine, who was born with a diseased liver, would press Tzakis into service again for the future husband she initially met on a website for families affected by pediatric liver disease. Three months and many keystrokes and phone calls later, Labbe, a resident of Connecticut, visited South Florida and he and Engebretsen discovered they shared much more than a childhood filled with illness—they were soulmates.
Soon after his return to Connecticut, Labbe, who was born with malformed bile ducts, fell gravely ill. Engebretsen went to see him and encouraged him to come back to Florida and seek help from Tzakis and Eugene Schiff, M.D., director of the Center for Liver Diseases at UM/Jackson. He did and, in May 2008, Tzakis performed his transplant.
Seven months later, the Pembroke Pines couple wed on Miami Beach and Engebretsen, now a medical student at Florida International University, began researching the risks of starting a family. She “read pretty much any obstetric book I could get my hands on, which is good and bad because … some stuff was really scary, especially if you were to have any of the complications.”
But even with all their research and planning, and the reassurance of their doctors, the pregnancy still came as a welcome shock.
“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re going to be parents,’” Engebretsen recalled telling Labbe. “Ryan was terrified. His eyes were huge. But he quickly got excited and warmed up to the idea.”
On July 21, their 7-pound, 8-ounce son made his debut into the world and, apparently, history. In a nod to Engebretsen’s Norwegian roots and in tribute to Tzakis, the couple named him Andersen, the Norwegian equivalent of Andreas.
“Sometimes it doesn’t hit me. I had to stop and go, ‘Oh, I’m a dad!’ It’s wonderful,” said Labbe, who works in the computer industry. “There’s so much more to experience and every day it’s something new.”
Yasin, who has been involved in many high-risk deliveries, including nearly all the births to transplant patients at Jackson, said Engebretsen experienced none of the serious complications during pregnancy and delivery by Cesarean section she had read about, probably because she was not on any anti-rejection medications.
“We don’t want to send the message that liver transplant recipients have easy pregnancies, but it was for Trine,” said Yasin, director of obstetrics and patient safety at the Women’s Hospital Center at Jackson and OB/GYN vice chair at the Miller School. “The fact that she had the transplant at a very young age made my life easier.”
With her husband at her side and her newborn son in her arms, Engebretsen expressed gratitude to donor families who make it possible for her and other transplants recipients to have their own family.
“I just like to show our donor families that we are caring for their generosity and trying to make the most of the gifts we have been given,” she said.