Marzena Stasieluk found herself in a rare bind during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2015 and had to go on dialysis until she could get a new kidney, but she wasn’t eligible for a transplant because her liver wasn’t strong enough to support the new organ. Her liver hadn’t deteriorated enough to qualify for a liver transplant but her doctors were worried it would reject the new kidney.
With nowhere else to turn, Stasieluk eventually turned to her daughter Jennifer Stasieluk, who is a nurse, for advice. She was willing to give her mother a new kidney, but the doctors told them it wasn’t going to work.
Even though they had the same blood type, Marzena had a high number of antibodies in her system that would attack foreign tissues, which increased the chances of the organ being rejected.
“She needed a new liver to do a kidney transplant. However, her liver by itself wasn’t sick enough,” said Jennifer, 29. “So, they kind of, like, threw their hands up and were just, kind of, like, ‘sorry.’”
But Marzena’s doctors finally come up with a solution. They suggested she get a partial liver transplant from a living donor. Jennifer got tested to see if she qualified.
“I kicked her door open in the morning when I got that call that I was a match. I said ‘Mom, I’m a match, pack your bags, surgery’s in six weeks.’ We couldn’t believe I was a match,” Jennifer said.
She gave her mother a lobe of her liver in June 2021. A partial liver transplant has the unique ability to regenerate itself in a matter of weeks.
The operation was a success and both women were out of recovery in a matter of days.
Marzena was desperate to get back to a normal life but she had to continue with dialysis until she could get a new kidney.
“It was awful. You sit there three days a week for over three hours,” said Marzena. “My kids and my grandkids are the whole world and that’s why I was fighting for so long. I don’t want them, the kids and my grandkids, to lose me.”
Jennifer decided to donate her kidney to a stranger as part of a kidney paired donation, or KPD, which is when living donor kidneys are swapped so each recipient receives a compatible transplant. Jennifer would donate her kidney to a stranger, while their kidney donor donated a kidney to Marzena.
But they got another surprise right before the paired donation was about to commence. Marzena’s doctors told her that her immune system had improved thanks to the partial liver transplant she received from Jennifer, which meant that Jennifer could now donate her kidney directly to her mother.
“We never in a million years thought that I would be a direct match. I was excited for it. I wasn’t nervous. I knew I was in good hands,” Jennifer said. “I gave her the bigger lobe of my liver on June 25, 2021. And then a year later, a kidney.”
Dr. Timucin Taner, division chair of transplant surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, performed the procedure on the Stasieluks. He and his team have been studying the effects of partial liver transplants on the immune system. They found that a living liver transplant before a heart transplant can help reduce the chances of organ rejection. But this is the first time they have seen a living liver transplant allow for a subsequent kidney transplant from the same donor.
“She donated two organs a year apart to the same person,” Taner said of Jennifer. “So, she saved her mom’s life twice.” He called them both heroes for undergoing the procedure.
“On average, typically about 25,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a liver transplant on the waiting list,” Taner said. “And of those, every year we can only transplant up to about 9,000 of them because that’s only how many livers we have.”
Jennifer said she found the experience to be empowering. “Just knowing that there is something I can do that is not hopeless … just having that power that I can actually do something and help her and save her life, it was amazing,” she explained.
Last month, Marzena got to spend the holidays with her family feeling healthy for the first time in years.
“Today, I am grateful. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say enough, thank you,” Marzena said, fighting back tears. “What do you say to a person that donated two organs, not just one?”