Nearly one year ago, Della Daniels donated half of her liver to her mother Donna, whose health was declining due to chronic liver disease.
It cost her a collapsed lung, two failing kidneys and a barrage of medical tests and ailments, and though the transplant failed, the 28-year-old says she would go through it all again for the chance to help save her mother’s life.
And just one week ago, Della was one of 39 live liver donors to receive a Gift of Life medal from BC Transplant on May 28. She is hoping her story will inspire others to consider registering as an organ donor or for live donation.
“We don’t take anything for granted; we’re grateful to be alive,” she said. “This experience was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to face, but we did it together and we’re still here today.”
Donna, now 52, was diagnosed with liver disease in 2008. A year later, she was still on the wait list for a new liver. Transplants are prioritized by the MELD [Model for End-Stage Liver Disease] system, a score that determines a patient’s condition.
However, while Donna was quite ill — suffering from confusion and having difficulties walking — she assessed just under the score needed for transplant priority.
“Something needed be done,” Della said. “Every time we went back to BC Transplant, it was the same news; she’d be within the same range every time.”
While visiting BC Transplant, Della learned about live liver transplant and decided to look into the possibility.
“We happened to be the same blood type and body size and height,” she said.
For the next year, Della went through thorough testing to ensure the success of the transplant. When Donna’s MELD score went up in July 2011, the live liver donation went ahead.
“It was really scary, but the surgeon told me my liver was really damaged, that they had to take it out in pieces. That’s why it took so long for them to do the surgery,” Donna said. “I did a lot of crying and worrying about my kids and grandkids. I’ve got eight grandkids.”
According to BC Transplant, during a live donor liver transplant, a portion of liver is surgically removed from a live donor and transplanted into a recipient immediately after the recipient’s liver has been entirely removed. Live donor liver transplantation is possible because the liver, unlike any other organ in the body, has the ability to regenerate, or grow. Regeneration occurs within a period of four to eight weeks after surgery.
Of the 39 living donation donors since 2001, none have died. The global risk of death in living donors is one in 250.
One week after the live liver donation, Donna’s new liver was unable to sustain her and failed.
“The major vein to her liver ruptured while she was sleeping, and it bled out,” Della explained. “It took 30 hours of surgery to repair the valve.”
But by chance, a liver arrived from a deceased donor that same day at Vancouver General Hospital, and a second transplant was undertaken immediately.
“I think it was luck that it happened to show up that day; other than that, they wouldn’t have been able to do anything for her,” Della said.
Meanwhile, on a different floor, Della’s condition took an unusual turn.
Donors are normally in and out of the hospital within seven to 10 days, but a lung collapse and kidney failure kept her in the hospital for much longer.
“The pain was excruciating,” she said. “I think the hardest thing was not being able to see my kids. It was really hard to leave them.”
The two spent a total of seven months combined in the hospital — two for Della and five for Donna.
“The thing I didn’t like was that we were on different floors, so I never did get to see her,” Donna said.
The mother-daughter duo, who live together in Ladysmith, say they’re no different than any other but that the experience has brought them closer. Even now, they continue to undergo medical appointments together every three months to monitor post-surgery process.
“We understand what each other went through,” Della said. “After our surgery, it took us a long time just to get up to take a couple of steps.”
It has also brought awareness of the need for transplant donors, and the ordeal has prompted the entire family to register, Della said.
For more information about BC Transplant and organ donation, click here.