Woman hopes her gift will save her ailing sister's life

Chris Togneri
| Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009

Christina Mazza was home alone, recovering from an operation to remove thyroid cancer, when the phone rang.

The surgery was successful. But the doctor on the line had different — and terrible — news: Mazza, 31, of South Park had hereditary amyloidosis, a debilitating and life-threatening disease that took her mom's life in 1986.

"I couldn't even talk when he told me," Mazza said, recounting the July 29 phone conversation. "I had to get off the phone."

There is a chance for a cure with a liver transplant. If she can get one within a year, her odds of survival and of leading a normal life are excellent.

She has a volunteer. After hanging up the phone with the doctor, the first person Mazza called was her sister, Lisa, 30. Christina told her the news, and — almost immediately — Lisa knew what she had to do.

"I told her July 29 that I was going to donate part of my liver to her," Lisa Mazza said. "She has a 7-year-old son, and that's how old I was when our mom died. I told her that I would donate my liver to her because I want to see my nephew have a mom. And because I want my sister around."

Lisa Mazza will begin undergoing tests next month to see if she is a match. If so, doctors will remove a portion of her liver and transplant it into her sister. A liver can regenerate, meaning both eventually would have normal, functioning livers again. If Lisa Mazza is not a match, their older sister Nicole Fields, 33, of Macon, Ga., has promised part of her liver.

Amyloidosis is a rare condition that generally affects the heart or nervous system and is caused by amyloid proteins that build up in organs, often leading to failure, said Mary O'Donnell, president of the Amyloidosis Foundation in Clarkston, Mich. About 7,000 to 8,000 people are diagnosed each year with the hereditary form.

Though relatively obscure, the disease is familiar to many Pennsylvanians.

Pittsburgh Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri died of the disease in 1988, and amyloidosis claimed the lives of Erie Mayor Louis Tullio, in 1990, and Gov. Robert P. Casey, in 2000.

For Mazza, the physical symptoms include faintness, spotty vision, weakness and shooting pains in her legs and feet. A former athlete who ran and worked out regularly for years, Mazza said it "feels like there are cinder blocks on my ankles when I try to run."

The diagnosis confirmed a fear she harbored for years.

Her mother, Phyllis Rigos-Mazza, died when she was 39. O'Donnell said children of victims have a 50 percent chance of carrying the mutated gene responsible for the disease. Christina Mazza's two sisters have been checked, and cleared.

"I kind of knew already that I had it," Mazza said. "But to get the official news, it was devastating. It's like you had everything going for you, and then you wake up one morning and all of a sudden you can't move anymore. ... I try to be strong and fight it, but I can't. It's too strong. It's a horrible feeling."

Others are helping the fight.

Childhood friend Andrea Schaaf, 30, of South Park is organizing a fundraiser Dec. 4 in South Park to help the sisters pay for medical and living expenses. Christina Mazza, a critical care nurse at UPMC Montefiore, has been unable to work since being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in early summer. Lisa Mazza, a bartender, will need financial aid if she donates part of her liver and misses weeks or months of work.

"Considering I can't donate my own liver to her, I felt I had to do everything I could to help them out," Schaaf said.

Christina Mazza said her son, Maximus, is helping in his way — simply by being a good boy.

Last week, while driving Maximus to a movie, she explained to her son that "Mommy is going through a lot right now."

"I told him, 'Mommy needs a big surgery. She's going to have a big boo-boo on her stomach,' " she said. "I said, 'Auntie Li-Li is going to give Mommy her liver and the doctors are going to make everything better."

Maximus responded by saying, "Ouch."

"But then I told him, 'It's OK. That means I'll still be able to take you to soccer practice next year.' "

Additional Information:

How to help

Donations to the Amyloidosis Fundraiser for Christina Mazza can be sent to First Commonwealth Bank, 4198 Washington Road, McMurray, PA 15017.

For information on amyloidosis, go to amyloidosis.org .

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