A beautiful gift
Liver transplant gives local girl new life, mother advocates for organ donation
Stacey Passalacqua vividly remembers the night five years ago when a gift of life forever changed her family.
Almost as if scripted for heightened drama, it was a dark and stormy night. She, husband Bill and their young daughter, Morgan, received a call eagerly awaited for months: Stanford University could give Morgan a liver transplant.
They’d kept bags packed and ready on the table; luggage in hand, they left Forest Ranch for the Bay Area. Meanwhile, the liver—from a little boy named Liam, fatally injured in an auto accident in Arizona—made its own journey to Stanford, though the inclement weather forced the transport aircraft to land short of its destination and an ambulance to complete the conveyance.
“It was like something out of a movie,” Passalacqua said.
A movie with a happy ending: Morgan is now a healthy, happy 7-year-old.
“She’s vibrant, thriving and loving—and she takes nothing for granted,” Passalacqua told the CN&R as Morgan played on the playground at Hooker Oak Park. “The biggest thing is there’s no itching; before she had her liver transplant, her liver didn’t work right, and the symptom was severe itching. I’m talking bugs under your skin. If we didn’t watch her and help her, she would scratch and bleed and scream.
“Now, she’s doing great. She has to take immunosuppresants twice a day [to keep her immune system from fighting the liver], but that’s a small price to pay for her life.”
Passalacqua, a longtime nurse at Enloe Medical Center currently focused on quality management, has become an advocate for organ donation. She’s shared Morgan’s story publicly since 2011 and promotes events associated with the cause.
April is National Organ Donation Month; tomorrow (April 15), Enloe will host an informational booth for Donor Network West, the facilitator of organ and tissue transplants for this region.
Donor Network West serves 40 counties in Northern California and Northern Nevada, encompassing more than 13 million people. Among the network’s 175 hospitals are five transplant centers, including Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, where Morgan received her liver.
In 2015, 20 Butte County residents had transplant surgeries, and nine Enloe patients donated organs and tissues that saved 23 lives. However, 93 county residents remained on waiting lists at the end of the year.
Butte County does exceed the U.S. average with 54 percent of drivers registered as donors (compared to half nationwide). Zach Hausauer, community development liaison for Donor Network West, sees that number jumping with more outreach.
“There are certain areas within our region that are very philanthropic,” he said, “very giving.”
That’s coupled with the fact that Donor Network West is the country’s third-largest organization of its kind. Last year, it had 300 organ donors, plus helped transplant centers locate organs and tissues elsewhere for patients within this region.
Noted Hausauer: “All over the area, there’s quite a bit of activity going on, on any given day.”
Emotions abound for families on both sides of the transplant process.
No one actually becomes a donor unless he or she is near death yet stable enough to live for several hours. Donor Network West rushes a specially trained counselor to the hospital—often via aircraft—for a careful discussion.
“It’s very hard for families who have no idea what their loved one’s wish [is] to make that choice,” Hausauer said. “Here they are grieving, at the worst moment of their lives, and they’re saddled with this very, very heavy decision.”
Even when wishes are known, via the organ donor registry, it’s not an easy time. Every organ and tissue must be transplanted within a specific number of hours, so “all of this is predicated on being timely and efficient,” but just the same “we all want to have the family’s best intentions in mind,” Hausauer explained.
“Sometimes the family wants to have that last moment with their loved one. Our staff takes a moment of silence, reads something that the family wrote [to or about] that individual who is about to be a hero to other people, and we reflect on what it is we’re about to do and who this person is about to save.”
The recipient can be someone like Morgan Passalacqua. When she was born, her pediatrician said she was the pinkest baby born that day; three months later she was jaundiced. Passalacqua said Dr. Daniela Morcos-Gannon referred them to Stanford, where Morgan was diagnosed with having small bile ducts in her liver from a rare genetic disease.
Multiple medications and surgeries failed to correct the problem—or alleviate the persistent itching. After two years, Morgan reached a critical crossroads.
“It was a really scary time; we didn’t know if she was going to live or die,” Passalacqua said. “When they told us she was going to have a liver transplant, the process was really smooth.”
Since Morgan’s father has a background in law enforcement, not medicine, Passalacqua said Bill relied on her. But even her nursing knowledge did not fully prepare her for the next three months. Fortunately, the transplant team “educated us, told us exactly what was going to happen.”
Passalaqua said Morgan has a close relationship with the grandmother of her donor. She calls Liam’s grandma “Granny K” when they communicate, which is often.
“As a recipient or as a donor family, every donation is a gift that can save a life and heal the life of someone in need,” she said. “Before I went through all this with Morgan, I didn’t think about being a donor; now I’m a donor, everyone in my family is a donor, and we totally support it.”