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Stranger Gives Infant Gift of Life

By Samiha Khanna January 07, 2016
Baby Elijah

Baby Elijah is doing well after a liver transplant from an altruistic donor

Baby Elijah is doing well after being diagnosed with a rare liver disease at birth. He owes his life to a stranger who offered to donate a portion of her liver after seeing his family's plea for a donor on the news. "I thought, I could give another mother a chance for her child to have a healthy life," said the donor, Sarah Ames. "If you have the ability to help someone like that, I don’t know why you wouldn’t.”

Infant Diagnosed with Rare Liver Disease Needs Liver Transplant

The joy that came with the birth of Gwendolyn Tsawo’s seventh child, little Elijah, was followed days later by grave concern. He was jaundiced. Even with treatment, his sallow skin and yellowed eyes wouldn’t perk up.

Doctors diagnosed Elijah with biliary atresia, a condition that reduces the flow of bile from the liver. Toxins were building up in his body, and they could cause brain damage. The infant would need a liver transplant.

“Looking back, I would do it again in a second,” Ames said.

Altruistic Donor Prompted by News Story

Elijah was placed on a waiting list for a liver donation through Duke University Hospital. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn Tsawo fretted over what else she could do. She and her six other children handed out fliers at the local shopping center, and heard from potential donors who turned out to be incompatible.

To increase her baby’s chances of finding a donor, Tsawo turned to her local TV station in Jacksonville, NC. She pleaded with viewers with compatible blood types to consider donating a portion of their liver to her son.

Within hours, video of Elijah had traveled the internet and into the email of a total stranger, Sarah Ames, who lived about 30 minutes away.

“I have six kids. I would want somebody to do that for my kids,” explained Ames, 33, who said her strong Christian faith drove her decision. “I thought, I could give another mother a chance for her child to have a healthy life. If you have the ability to help someone like that, I don’t know why you wouldn’t.”

Fully Recovered, Thanks to Living Donor

A living donor’s liver starts regenerating in just a couple of days, said Dr. Debra L. Sudan, MD, Elijah’s surgeon and Chief of Abdominal Transplant Surgery at Duke.

“It’s not common that we see altruistic donors, but sometimes family members aren’t able to donate, or aren’t a good match,” Sudan said. “Mrs. Ames was very generous and stepped forward to do a wonderful thing for this baby. Elijah is fully recovered. Because he’s had a transplant, we need to suppress his immune system so the body doesn’t reject the liver, so we will monitor him. If he gets a cold, we may be a little more aggressive in investigating and treating any infection. But if all goes well, he won’t need another transplant, and we anticipate he’ll have a great, long and healthy life.”

Donor Recommends Being an Altruistic Donor

Ames and her family are “heaven sent,” Tsawo said. The families get together often. It’s a joy to see the children from both families together, their mothers agreed.

“This has really opened up my eyes to life, and people, and their generosity,” Tsawo said.

It’s important for donors to consider the risks and complications that can occur for some living donors, such as wound infection, Sudan said. For most donors, it takes about two months to feel energy levels return to normal.

“Most donors do very well because they are tested extensively, and they’re healthy going in,” Sudan said.

Having gone through the process, Ames says she would recommend being a donor without hesitation.

“Looking back, I would do it again in a second,” Ames said.

News & Observer Front-Page Story

The miraculous story of Elijah Tsawo and Sarah Ames was featured on the front page of the News & Observer on Thursday, December 24, 2015.

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