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Organ Transplant Surgery: How Death Can Sometimes Mean New Life

(Photo courtesy of the Thompson family)
Maia Thompson in recovery from her liver transplant at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

Christine Thompson says she knew something wasn’t quite right with her daughter, Maia, shortly after arriving home from a family vacation last Fall.

“I remember picking her up from school and she was complaining that she was feeling really tired,” she said. What was happening inside of Maia’s body was more than just post-vacation fatigue. Instead, it was something much more serious.

“When she came into the bedroom the first time, I saw her. She was completely yellow and jaundice,” Thompson explained.

The family rushed to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and after a few tests doctors determined the culprit. Maia had Wilson’s disease, a rare genetic disorder that allows your body to accumulate dangerously high levels of copper in vital organs, especially the liver, and now her liver was failing.

“I was scared,” said Maia, now 13. “Because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Maia was immediately placed on the national liver transplant waiting list, but once at the hospital, her condition deteriorated quickly. Maia’s family members were tested to see if they might be a match, but to no avail. So they waited.

“It was very scary and I didn’t know how much time we were going to have because she was just getting sicker and sicker,” explained Thompson. “I think waiting for that liver...the days just weren’t going by fast enough.”

And then several days later, the medical team got word that an organ donor had died. They were a match for Maia.

"It's such a dramatic, life-changing event for the patient and the family," said Maia's transplant surgeon Dr. Winston Hewitt.

According to the American Liver Foundation about 6,000 liver transplants are performed each year in the United States. Hewitt said, for pediatric cases, the procedure lasts between four and eight hours.

But that's only a small part of Hewitt's day when a match is found. He explained that he personally flies out to examine and retreive the donor organ no matter where it is in the United States. The recipient's surgery is timed so that it can begin as soon as the organ arrives.

"But scrubbing in, that few minutes of just standing there and washing your hands and preparing for the essential battle of what is to come is essentially the calm of the entire process," said Hewitt.

Maia's recovery has been slow but steady. She and her mom, Christine Thompson, say the enormity of what happened is something they think about often. They hope one day they'll be able to meet the donor's family. The first step though is a letter. Families of deceased donors have the final word on whether or not to meet.

"Just to find the right words to thank someone for such an amazing gift is very difficult," said Thompson. "To show our gratitude and thank this wonderful family for giving us a second chance and allowing Maia to be in our lives is incredible."

"I don't really know how to word it but I know I'm definitely going to say thank you," added Maia.

As for Dr. Winston Hewitt, it's cases like this that make his job incredibly rewarding. To see someone get a second chance at life. But this second chance is only possible, he said, because in most cases someone else lost their life. He said he's always amazed at how selfless the donor families are, where at the time of their greatest loss they can offer the organs of their loved ones to someone else so that a stranger has a second chance at life.

"That just constantly pervades my thoughts," he said. "That never ceases to impact me."

Read More From The Business Of Dying Series:

Part 1: How Maricopa County Is Planning To Attract More Medical Examiners In Face Of Shortage Part 2: Arizonans Overwhelmingly Choose Cremation Over Traditional Burial Part 3: Death Becomes Her: More Women Enter Once Male-Dominated Funeral Service Industry Part 4: Laid To Rest: A Dignified Farewell For The Poor And Unclaimed In Maricopa County Part 5: Organ Transplant Surgery: How Death Can Sometimes Mean New Life

Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.