Who Gives a Sliver of a Liver to a Stranger?

Who gives a sliver of a liver to a stranger?

For families with loved ones in desperate need of liver transplants, exhaustion and a readiness to give up hope happens all too often. There are not enough livers from living or deceased donors to meet the need. With their options fleeting, it is not uncommon to see families turn to social media in their search for a living liver donor.

In fact, a 2010 study found that 11 out of 12 anonymous liver donors first heard of anonymous organ donation via media appeals. These public appeals give a face to the more than 400 people in Canada waiting for a liver transplant.

That is why in 2016 when eight-year-old Gianna-Lynn Favilla made a public plea for a liver donor, Heather Badenoch did not hesitate to apply. Her motivation was that we must do better as a society than merely hoping someone else will swoop in and save the day; action must be taken by ourselves.

A team of surgeons operate on a patient who cannot be seen. Large lamps look down above them.
More than 400 people are waiting for liver transplants in Canada.

While Gianna went on to receive a successful liver transplant from another living donor, Heather asked to stay in the screening process to give to whichever child needed her liver the most—thus embarking on a two-year journey that would ultimately reshape her life.

Heather began her journey with the University Health Network (UHN) Transplant Team, a group that in 2017 became North America’s largest transplant centre. They have performed more than 700 living liver donor transplants since 1999.

“Why save the life of a stranger?” Heather asked rhetorically during a series of tweets published in late May 2018. “For a family out there, this is their child—and this child needed this piece of liver more than I did.”

Heather, an anonymous living liver donor, and her husband Paul pose in formal attire at the Give Gala in Ottawa.
Heather and her husband Paul at the Give Gala in Ottawa

Becoming a living liver donor to a stranger is a meticulous process with many precautions taken by the transplant team. The journey involves physical testing (CT scans, MRI’s, blood tests, ECG and x-rays) and a psychological evaluation to ensure that, for example, the decision to donate is not impulsive or the result of pressure by another party.

“Before I ever filled out a form, [the living liver donor website] had so many pages on the process, the surgery, and the possible complications. All ready for me to read,” says Heather during a conversation with the CLF. “I met with four surgeons who spent the time talking with me, advising me and making sure I understood the decision to give—it’s really something.”

Unfortunately, not all of those who apply to be a living donor are deemed a suitable fit for transplantation. Transplant centres review a plethora of detailed criteria in order to match donors with recipients, including (but not limited to) the compatible liver size and blood type.

A doctor sits across their desk pointing to their laptop. A patient sits on the other side of the table with hands crossed, listening. There is a stethoscope, phone and a pair of glasses on the table.
Anonymous liver donors meet with a team of specialists and doctors who ensure, amongst other things, they understand the risks and complications possible in any transplant.

Heather happily passed all the necessary testing and was matched with her first potential recipient in 2016. Shortly after a transplant surgery date was set, however; her anonymous recipient became too ill. The transplant team was first forced to postpone the surgery and, ultimately, cancel it all together.

Keeping the anonymity of the recipient, the only explanation Heather received from the transplant team was that the transplant was ‘no longer foreseeable’.

“It was a sad time,” says Heather. “Even though this child and their family were strangers, it was heartbreaking we’d come close to saving his or her life, but the chance slipped away”.

Understandably, Heather decided to take a break from becoming a living donor during this emotional time. She picked the matching process back up the following year and her goal was achieved once again; she had a new match and her surgery was set.

Heather successfully donated 30% of her liver to a child during a transplant surgery between Toronto General Hospital (TGH) and SickKids. Aside from being told that the surgery was successful and the recipient was doing well, she will not ever receive any more information on the child whose life she saved. The only correspondence they will have is a one-time anonymous letter sent through the transplant office.

A doctor with his face hidden carries a cooler bag with a piece of Heather's liver in it. The doctor will travel through a tunnel that connects Toronto General Hospital to SickKids hospital to deliver the liver.
A portion of Heather’s liver in transit from Toronto General Hospital to SickKids.

Heather spent a week recovering in hospital. She made incredible progress in recovery, easing back to her consulting business 11 days post-surgery. Her liver would go on to successfully regenerate to its normal size within a few months.

“I haven’t found the words yet to describe the emotional high I’ve been on in the months following surgery,” says Heather. “I find myself thinking about the child all the time and thinking about what milestones they will be able to achieve over the years of their life.”

Heather leans on a walker smiling. She is wearing a hospital gown and is connected to a machine with IV bags.
Heather out for her first walk, three days post-surgery

Now back to her regular routine, Heather is left with a four-inch scar which she says, “provides perspective” and is a “reminder of what matters” in her series of tweets. Aside from not sweating the little things, Heather is as clear as ever about what she wants any reader to take from her story.

“For all those (at least in Ontario), flip your health card over and check if it has the word ‘donor’ on it,” says Heather.

“If it doesn’t go online and register. Now that you know what it means to be a living donor, give it some serious thought! Think about if you can be the reason someone gets to be taken off the waiting list”.

Daljit and Heather pose together smiling at the Ottawa Stroll for Liver. The background is a sunny day at a park, and they are positioned beside a picnic table.
Heather and Daljit Nagpal, a long-time volunteer at the CLF’s Ottawa chapter, at the 2018 Ottawa Stroll for Liver

If by reading this, you thought this marked the end of Heather’s living organ donor journey—you may want to guess again.

“I plan to do it again,” says Heather. “A family member has Lupus and could need a kidney—it’s here whenever she needs it”.

6 thoughts on “Who Gives a Sliver of a Liver to a Stranger?

  1. I am so proud of Heather donating part of her liver for this young girl! God bless her! 🙏🏻This was such a loving, brave, thoughtful, kind, act, in giving this recipient “the gift of life”! 😍♥️
    I had a whole liver transplant on Aug. 31/ 2014, at TGH and I am eternally grateful for my “gift of life”! So very thankful to my donor’s family for their brave decision, God bless them. 🙏🏻 Hoping and praying more donors will sign up, and save many more lives, as mine was! Thinking of all, Sincerely, Marsha Thake

  2. I think this is amazing I myself have just finished up the testing and will be a live liver donor for my wife this coming September!!! I’m very excited to give her life again and spend many more years together

  3. Unfortunately, at 69 I was considered too old to help anyone in this way. Too bad. I’ll bet they wouldn’t have worried about my age-just that they were getting a chance at more life and maybe further advances.

  4. Great story Heather. Such a gift you gave. My brother David gave my sister Debbie Kleiboer that same gift 7 years ago and we just got back from her check up and she is doing well. Hope to meet you at the liver walk in Ottawa. Cynthia

  5. I was a living liver donor for my brother and it truly is the best thing you can do to be a donor. Because of the successful transplant he gets more time with our family and my son gets to know his uncle

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