Split liver transplant recipients meet

Karen Torrey, 70 years old
Karen Torrey, 70 years old

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Sitting in a wheelchair in the enclosed visitor's garden at Oschner's Hospital in New Orleans, 70-year-old Karen Torrey holds a bouncing, cooing toddler in her arms.  Physically, Torrey seems to be a frail figure, thin and pail.  A purple turban covers her hair.

But, her strong spirit shines through a bright smile that lights her face and brings color to her cheeks.

The toddler, Matthew is one-year-old.  He is active, attentive and vivacious, playing with a teddy bear that's almost bigger than he is.

Matthew and Torrey are not related in the traditional way.  She hails from California, while he lives with his mother in Lafayette.  In fact, they don't even speak the same language.  Matthew's family moved to the United States from Panama, and his mother doesn't speak English.

However, with so much dividing them, the two quite literally share a special piece of each other.

"The kindness of the people that were able, in their sorrow, to share with Matthew and myself. We're alive because of this," said Torrey.

Torrey and Matthew are both recipients of a split liver transplant.  As their families meet, they are aware of an undeniable connection to each other and to the donor.

The liver is made up of two lobes that can actually be surgically separated and even regenerate over time.  This is especially helpful for kids like Matthew, because doctors say it is much harder to find pediatric donors.   Matthew was born with a type of atrophy that keeps his liver from functioning properly.

"What split liver transplant has allowed us to do through surgical innovation and expertise, divide that liver through its vascular ducts, allowing the left lobe, the smaller lobe go to the child and the right lobe of the liver going to a smaller adult," explained hepatologist Dr. Nigel Girgrah who is also the Medical Director for the Multi-Organ Transplant Institute.

Both patients have been waiting for a transplant for some time.  In fact, Matthew was called three times for a possible surgery before they found a match.  With the help of a translator, the toddler's mother said that prayer gave them strength.

"Every day she would pray to God and still does.  She says because now he has a longer life, a new organ and still there is a lot to wait and deal with and she knows that," she said.

The surgeries took place in November.  A month later, doctors say both patients are recovering beautifully. 

Karen is a nurse and her husband is a physician.   She said they even worked with early transplant patients back in the 70s.  She never thought she'd be on the receiving end, but an autoimmune condition severely damaged her organs.

"I didn't think I'd make it for Christmas and they tell me I am," she said with a smile.

The doctors here say organ donors are always needed.  Last in Louisiana, around 100 people died while waiting on an organ transplant.  Currently, 1,700 Louisiana residents are on a waiting list.

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