For the past four years, Breana Shaw was living on borrowed time. Suffering from end-stage liver disease, the 30-year-old North Park resident was too sick to work and have a normal life, but not sick enough to qualify for a liver transplant from a cadaver donor.
Then last December, she got the best Christmas present of her life. Damian Delaney, 57, an altruistic Catholic schoolteacher in Los Angeles, wanted to give the gift of life to a stranger, and his blood type and the portion of his liver he would donate were the perfect match for Shaw.
On Dec. 12, the transplant was performed at Keck Hospital of USC in Los Angeles, and in March, Shaw and Delaney met for the first time in a joyous greeting of tears and extended hugs. Shaw said meeting her benefactor was an overwhelming experience. It’s hard for her to describe the depth of her gratitude but she said she now considers Delaney “family” and she’ll be connected to him forever.
“I really didn’t think there were people out there in the world like him, but there he is,” she said recently. “I feel so blessed to have met him.”
Delaney is the rarest of all organ donors.
In 2018, 8,800 Americans received liver transplants, and more than 95 percent of the donated organs came from cadavers. The rest were transplants from living donors, mostly parents, siblings or friends of the patients. Only a tiny fraction of these live organ transplants — just 12 last year in the U.S. — came from anonymous donors, according to Anne Paschke with the United Network for Organ Sharing.
For the donor, a liver lobe transplant is more involved than donating a kidney, with a much bigger scar and a longer and more painful recovery. But unlike a kidney donation, the donor’s liver grows back to its full size in just two months. But it’s a hard two months, as Delaney discovered during his recovery. A long-distance runner with more than 30 marathons under his belt, Delaney spent a week in the hospital after the surgery and he used all of his sick and personal leave days over the winter because he missed so many days of school due to illness.
While he’s still suffering some lingering effects of the surgery, Delaney said he’s never felt better about the choice he made. A former priest who has taught religion and other classes at Bishop Conaty — Our Lady of Loretto High School in L.A. for 23 years, Delaney said he sees his donation as the ultimate gift of Christian love.
“I’ve always been a person of faith and I’ve always been grateful that God blessed me with good health,” he said in a recent interview. “When I saw there were all kinds of people out there with liver disease who are dying, it touched me. This was my opportunity. It was like my Christian duty to do this for someone.”
Keck is the only hospital in Southern California performing live donor liver transplants. Dr. Yuri Genyk, the surgeon who performed Shaw’s transplant, said whole liver transplants from cadaver donors are less complicated surgeries than partial organ transplants from live donors. But live donations are critically important because so many Americans — 2,500 last year — die while on the waiting list for cadaver livers.
In the 20 years since Keck started its liver transplant program, Genyk said there have been just eight anonymous liver donors. Because these donors are so rare, Keck is publicizing Delaney’s donation as a way to launch a new initiative promoting anonymous transplants for adult patients, since they’re usually in much greater need than the pediatric patients who usually receive the live donations.
“It blows my mind away to talk to these altruistic donors,” Genyk said. “I walk out of the room and think I’m just like a selfish nobody. It’s amazing the extent of what somebody’s giving nature can be. Some people really do receive more enjoyment from giving than from receiving.”
Shaw and Delaney were matched up last fall after two other living donor transplants fell through. In November, Shaw had been scheduled for a different transplant but the donor’s liver proved an unsuitable match. Delaney had originally planned to donate his liver to a close friend and running partner with liver disease. But on the day of the surgery, her liver started functioning unexpectedly and she was no longer eligible for the transplant. Delaney said he was disappointed as he walked out of the hospital that day.
“I was happy for my friend, but still felt like I hadn’t finished what I needed to do. So I went back upstairs and said, ‘put me on the anonymous donor list. I’m ready to go. I’m on deck,’ ” he said.
Shaw grew up in Arizona and moved to San Diego 12 years ago when her father was transferred to a local Navy base. While she was studying interior design at Mesa College, she became increasingly ill with fatigue, upper abdomen pain and flu-like symptoms.
After a year of various misdiagnoses, a hepatologist conducted a liver biopsy on the 23-year-old Shaw and determined she had autoimmune hepatitis. The disease causes her body’s immune system to see her liver as a foreign entity and attack it. The disease is incurable but usually responds well to drug treatment. However, in some rare cases, it can be so serious it requires transplant. In 2015, Shaw was hospitalized for two weeks and her doctors found her liver was so damaged by scarring that a transplant was her only hope for long-term survival.
Because she was still healthier than most end-stage liver disease patients, Shaw knew she was low on the list for a cadaver donor, so the only real option was a live transplant, but nobody among her family or friends was a match. She also initially rejected the idea of seeking an anonymous donor.
“I was not open to the idea. If something were to happen to that person, how could I live with myself?” she said.
Eventually, she agreed to consider an anonymous donation and was elated last fall when she got the call that an initial match had been found. But when that organ fell through in November, she was devastated. Then another call came two weeks later for Delaney’s liver, though she wouldn’t know anything about him until she met him.
Shaw has had multiple complications since the surgery, but she’s gradually beginning to feel better. Her hair is no longer falling out, she hasn’t lost any more weight and her skin is no longer jaundiced. She has enough energy now to go to the store on occasion and walk her dog and, she says, “I’m beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Inspired by Delaney, Shaw said she’d like to change careers and find a job where she can help others.
“I’ve been given a second chance and I feel a responsibility to make my life mean something,” she said. “After I got sick, I let fear hold me back from doing the things I wanted to do. Now I want to say yes to everything.”
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