Young Nebraska girl's organs give 2 Pittsburgh-area boys a chance to live
Lauressa Swedberg smiled through her grief Thursday as she planned a funeral in Nebraska for her 3-year-old daughter, whose donated organs saved two lives in Pittsburgh.
And two families rejoiced while perched at the bedsides of their respective children in Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. They called the donor, Olivia Swedberg, who died of brain cancer Tuesday, a hero who lives on.
“It's so hard to describe,” said Lauressa Swedberg, 31, of North Platte, Neb. “I am this mourning mother, but I also feel wonderful to know she is living on. I feel so grateful because I now know that she was here for a purpose — to save others.”
Two-year-old Lucas Goeller of Indiana Township received Olivia's liver during a transplant surgery that began Wednesday night and ended just before 7 a.m. Thursday.
During a simultaneous surgical procedure, Angelo Giorno, 4, of Derry Township received Olivia's small intestine to combat a digestive disorder known as short bowel syndrome.
The surgeries performed by two teams lasted for about nine hours, said Dr. George Mazariegos, chief of pediatric transplantation at the Lawrenceville hospital.
“We are thrilled to let you know that all is going well with both boys,” Mazariegos said at a news briefing Thursday. “This is the first step of a new journey for them, but we're very excited about that journey. I expect with good care and good monitoring, both of these children will be able to live normal lives.”
In Lucas' case, Mazariegos said, he would have died had he not received a new liver within the next few weeks.
He developed an illness called biliary atresia shortly after birth. The disease inhibits bile ducts in the liver.
“So far, so good. We need to take it one step at a time,” Jessica Goeller, Lucas' mother, said after the operation.
She said her son still has “a lot of hurdles,” including potential infections and rejection of the organ.
Swedberg said she connected with the Goeller family through Facebook on receiving an email about Lucas' condition last week and a link to his Facebook page.
“Who couldn't fall in love with that little boy?” Swedberg asked. “He is amazing, even from the pictures I have seen.”
Lucas waited 18 months for the transplant. A public campaign, including billboard advertisements and social media posts, sought a suitable donor.
Swedberg contacted Lucas' family over the weekend and offered to help. She said doctors tested Olivia's liver and deemed it viable Wednesday evening. The organ was flown to Pittsburgh shortly thereafter.
“That's an incredible person,” Mazariegos said of Olivia's mother. “This donor's name needs to be remembered.”
Doctors in May diagnosed Olivia with a terminal tumor in her brain stem. The illness did not affect any of her organs, making her a “perfect organ donor,” Swedberg said.
Still, Mazariegos said, Lucas and Olivia had different blood types. But he said the liver tends to adapt better in children despite the blood mismatch.
In Angelo's case, his legal guardians Dean Kuhns, 56, and his partner, Dale Darazio, 46, said Children's Hospital officials called them Wednesday about a possible intestinal match. They were speeding down Penn Avenue just before noon in East Liberty when Darazio said Pittsburgh police pulled them over.
“I just jumped out of the car and told the officer I had to get to the hospital for a transplant,” Darazio said. “He said, ‘Get back into the car and follow me,' and gave me an escort. He was gone before I could even get a name and say thank you. I'd really like to find out who he is to pay my respects.”
It was just another twist in the emotional roller coaster all families involved were experiencing.
“The fact that both of them were able to be helped by Olivia is just indescribable,” said Lucas' grandmother, Theresa Goeller. “Olivia's mother is reaching out to us in such a positive way. She's so happy that the transplants were successful.”
Since news of the transplants broke, Swedberg said, people from Western Pennsylvania have flocked to a Facebook page honoring Olivia to offer support.
“Social media is incredible,” she said. “I know some people get fed up with Facebook, but without it this would have never happened.”
“Social media is definitely changing the landscape for transplantation, and it's exciting to see the wonderful benefit that it is having in the past few years,” he said.
Ben Schmitt is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.