Away from home for the holidays: A new liver gives Phillips the gift of life

living donation for liver transplant
Phillips and his living donor, Ellen

Family, friends, food, presents and a tree: It might have seemed like any other Christmas, but there were a few important differences that made this day unique for the Pratts. They were celebrating the holiday a week early. And their younger son, Phillips, was about to get the gift of a lifetime. In just a few days, the 14-year-old would receive a liver transplant.

Only a couple of months earlier, Phillips was like any other active eighth-grader, hanging out with his friends, swimming and playing with his dog and cat. But when a bout of severe acid reflux and other symptoms spurred a visit to his doctor, a series of tests revealed the unimaginable: He had fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, a rare but aggressive form of liver cancer.

liver transplant patient with cat
Phillips and his cat, Daisy

Preparing for transplant

When the family sought treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital near their home in Memphis, where Phillips’ grandfather had been a member of the founding team, they received good news. Phillips wouldn’t need chemotherapy because the cancer hadn’t spread beyond his liver yet. But he wasn’t in the clear: With the tumor already blocking his bile ducts and causing liver damage, a transplant would be the best approach. His surgeon at St. Jude, Dr. Andrew Murphy, who had trained under Dr. Heung Bae Kim, recommended the Pediatric Transplant Center’s Liver Transplant Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“We did our own research on Boston Children’s and felt very comfortable seeing Dr. Kim,” explains Phillips’s mother, Leigh. “When we met him, we knew he was the right surgeon — he’s very talented.” Although Kim told Leigh and her husband, Benton, that he could perform any type of liver transplant, he felt that a liver from a living donor would be best for Phillip’s particular case. Such transplants reduce likelihood of having to wait, and evidence suggests that livers from living donors last longer than those from deceased donors.

teenager after liver transplant
Phillips with part of his care team: Julie Iglesias, Rima Fawaz and Dr. Vakili

A race against the clock

With that decision made, the Pratts now faced a new challenge: Neither of Phillips’s parents were suitable matches for him. “It felt like a race against the clock,” says Leigh. They extended the plea to get tested to the rest of their family and friends — but they didn’t have to wait long. One of Leigh’s cousins, a 28-year-old named Ellen, matched and selflessly offered to give Phillips a portion of her liver.

The prospect of major surgery, let alone an organ transplant, would seem daunting even to most adults. But by winter, Phillips was tired of feeling sick. “I was just ready for it to happen,” he remembers. On December 22, Dr. Khashayar Vakili and Kim performed the surgery. Phillips and his donor spent the holidays recovering.

liver transplant patient with dog
Phillips with his dog, Missi

A happy homecoming

The recovery for both Phillips and Ellen — who underwent her surgery at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts — has been long. But after about 6 weeks, he was able to return home to Memphis. Although he’ll require regular follow-up appointments and needs to take anti-rejection medication for life, he and his parents feel confident that he’s in good hands. “The team at Boston Children’s is his team until he’s an adult,” says Leigh. “At this point, they feel like family.”

As for Phillips, he is just happy to be back home with his dad, older brother and pets. “This is Missi,” he explains, showing off an iPhone video of his boisterous dog ‘talking’ on command. “And this is Daisy,” as he shares a photo of his slightly more aloof cat. Like the rest of his family, the animals are undoubtedly happy Phillips is thriving, too.

Learn about the Liver Transplant Program.