A mom gives life twice with living-donor liver transplant

Living-donor liver transplant recipient with her mom Dawn

Dawn Cavanaugh carefully and calmly navigates the roads of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, with a bus full of kids, bringing them to school and safely back home again at the end of each day. As a bus driver, it’s the methodical beat of her everyday life.

Last year, as a mom, she was navigating a very different journey, one in which she did everything in her power — including giving a portion of her liver — to bring her daughter Lydia home safely.

“As far as I’m concerned, my role in this life is to care for my kids,” says Dawn. “And if I have to give a part of myself to do that, that’s all there is to it.”

On the morning of July 15, 2015, Boston Children’s Hospital surgeons Dr. Khashayar Vakili and Dr. Heung Bae Kim begin prepping 11-year-old Lydia for what will be an all-day liver transplant surgery. Dawn is about to undergo surgery as well, 20 miles away at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, in Burlington, Massachusetts, where Boston Children’s adult liver-donor surgeries take place.

A portion of Dawn’s healthy liver will be removed to replace Lydia’s diseased liver. The surgery is not without risk.

“The anatomy of the liver is very complex and a liver transplant involves creating multiple connections between the organ and the recipient — it’s a technical challenge to do it well,” says Vakili. “When a part of liver is split from a living donor, we can use that segment to transplant since the liver regenerates. Dawn’s liver will grow back to its original size, and as Lydia grows bigger, the liver will grow with her as well.”

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Learning about a life-threatening liver disease

Lydia was one week old when her family learned she had biliary atresia, a rare liver disease of the bile ducts, where bile becomes trapped in the liver. A Kasai procedure at 20 days old allowed the bile to flow freely and bought Lydia more time. But by August of 2014, following years of reoccurring biliary tract infections, it was time for Lydia to be listed for transplant.

Months passed without word of an available donor. Lydia’s health continued to decline. By spring, the sense of urgency reached a new decibel. The Cavanaughs were told it would be a good time to begin looking for a living donor.

“Unfortunately, my husband and I didn’t qualify. Lahey would only accept donors between the ages of 25 and 45.”

Dawn’s sister submitted her paperwork to be evaluated. But as fate would have it, just a week later the living donor age limit was bumped to 55. Dawn now qualified, so she began the evaluation process immediately. By the end of June, she learned she was a match.

“One thing I remember is that the social worker asked me if I expected anything in return for being Lydia’s liver donor. And I said, “Of course I expect something. I expect her to live a long and happy life.”

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Life after liver transplant

More than a year after her liver transplant, on Aug. 1, Lydia’s 13th birthday, the Cavanaugh family goes on Lydia’s Make-A-Wish trip, a Disney cruise to the Bahamas. “We had so much fun,” says Dawn. “She’s a happy kid. She has dreams. She wants to be a transplant nurse one day, and work on 10 South at Boston Children’s Hospital.”

For now, Lydia is content living life as an eighth grader. She loves spending time with her best friend Kara, going to the beach, visiting with her “Grammy” and, sometimes, even riding the bus to school in the morning with her mom.

Learn more about the Liver Transplant Program.