Living Up to the Promise of Living-Donor Transplant Surgery
On Twentieth Anniversary, Liver Transplant Recipient and Donor Celebrate the Gift of Life by Giving Back
Liver transplants today don’t make the front-page news as did the pioneering transplant efforts at the University of Chicago Medicine two decades ago. But for Shannon Hickey, one of the earliest patients to undergo the groundbreaking living-donor procedure, the news is still all good.
On Saturday, January 29, 2011, Shannon, who was only 7 months old at the time of the surgery, and her mother and transplant donor, Kelly Ann Lynch, celebrated the 20th anniversary of that life-giving operation. Now a junior majoring in communications and broadcasting at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, Shannon has perfect liver function and takes only one medication daily. "I got a second chance at life," she said. "Knowing that makes me more aware and appreciative of the gift of life each day."
In late 1990, when they received Shannon’s diagnosis of biliary artesia, a nearly always fatal liver disease at that time, the devastated family began searching for a way to save the child’s life. When Kelly Lynch learned that surgeons at the University of Chicago had recently performed the world’s first successful living-donor liver transplant, she called the University switchboard, and soon found herself talking directly to transplantation pioneer Christopher Broelsch, MD, whose team had performed the surgery.
Kelly recalled Broelsch’s kind demeanor as he delivered the news that her daughter would require a liver transplant to survive. Despite the experimental nature of the procedure and knowing its potential risks, including the loss of life for both recipient and donor, Kelly said, "I knew intuitively this was right for my daughter and for me."
Kelly recalled that her decision was confirmed when she came to the medical campus and met then three-year-old Alyssa Smith, the recipient of the historic first living-donor transplant. "To see her alive, running, playing and happy sustained me and gave me strength that I had made the right decision for Shannon," she said.
Kelly, who was only 23 years old at the time of her daughter’s transplant, still maintains contact with Peter Whitington, MD, who led Shannon’s care team at the University of Chicago Medicine. She noted, "We were in such a safe place there. I trusted them completely with the life of my child and my own. You can’t do that with just anybody."
Though the fear and uncertainty of those early days have passed, the mother and daughter still respond with obvious emotion when describing what the surgery has meant to their lives. As it turns out, Shannon has meant much to the lives of thousands of others in the intervening 20 years as well. Consistent with her family’s shared ideal of giving back by helping others in need, Shannon has made service to others an important part of her life since childhood.
In January 2002 on the eleventh anniversary of the successful transplant surgery, rather than her traditional anniversary party with cake and presents, Shannon decided to celebrate her life in a more meaningful way. She chose to honor the memory of Father Mychal Judge, the family’s long-time spiritual advisor and one of the most well-known victims and lauded heroes of the World Trade Center tragedy, which had occurred just a few months earlier. That year, in lieu of gifts, Shannon launched a drive to collect socks for the homeless in the community that Father Mychal once served, prompting an outpouring of donations from family, friends and community members.
Shortly thereafter, Shannon, her mother, and her grandmother, Sharon Hickey, founded Mychal’s Message, a nonprofit organization that has made charitable donations to hundreds of thousands of the homeless and poor in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Florida, Oklahoma, Iraq and Haiti. The work of the organization has been featured on national morning news shows and prompted invitations from former president George W. Bush for mother and daughter to visit the White House and attend the president’s State of the Union message.
The family continues to express their gratitude and celebrate the anniversary of the transplant surgery each year on January 29. To recognize the twentieth anniversary in 2011, they did the three things they always do: They gave thanks by attending Mass as a family. They gave back by providing a special dessert for the homeless at a Philadelphia soup kitchen. And they celebrated life by attending a live performance of the Broadway musical, Mary Poppins, in New York City.
"Our family has been inspired forever by Shannon’s experience," said Kelly. "We never take a day of her life for granted, and we can never do enough to give back for the blessings we’ve received."