Live liver donor meets toddler she helped save
As Suzy Diekmann watched her 19-month-old daughter scoot across the floor of a sunlit atrium at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, tears formed in her eyes.
“She is nosy and curious and busy, and she is the boss,” Diekmann, 30, of Warren, Ohio, said of her daughter, Ella. “She's so full of life. She's just alive.”
She is alive thanks to another woman in the room, a woman who until Friday had been a mystery to the Diekmann family. They did not know her name, her age or where she lives. They knew only that she was the live liver donor who saved Ella's life. And they did not know why.
“You're the mom?” said Amanda Crow, 25, of Hermitage in Mercer County when she entered the atrium.
Overcome with emotion, Diekmann could not respond other than to nod.
“It's nice to meet you,” Crow said as the women hugged. She looked down at Ella and added: “She's so beautiful.”
Ella smiled, then took off her shoes and presented them to Crow. They spent the next hour getting to know each other.
The path to this unlikely meeting began last fall.
All because Amanda Crow could not fall asleep one night.
“So naturally, I went to social media because I'll fall asleep with my face on my phone,” said Crow, who works in admissions at Slippery Rock University. “Then I just happened to see this article about Baby Ella, and I found out that I just happened to be a blood match.
“I have a tender spot in my heart for little kids. Honestly, I just went to bed and prayed on it. I really felt led to help this girl. I've been fortunate with good health, so I thought, ‘Why not share it with someone else?' ”
The article, out of Youngstown, Ohio, explained that Ella had been diagnosed with biliary atresia, a potentially fatal disease of the liver and bile ducts, at 6 weeks old. She was in desperate need of a liver transplant. A Facebook page — Hope 4 Baby Ella — also chronicled the girl's failing health.
So Crow called UPMC.
“I knew I was going to come out OK, but I also knew that if I didn't, it was my purpose to save someone else,” Crow said. “There's no better purpose than that.”
In late December, the Diekmanns got the phone call about a potential donor.
“It was our Christmas miracle,” Diekmann said. “Suddenly, we had hope for Ella, and we had hope for more Christmases with her. There are no words for that.”
The surgery was March 7. Dr. Abhi Humar, chief of the transplantation division at UPMC Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute, removed 25 percent of Crow's liver. Dr. George Mazariegos, chief of pediatric transplantation at Children's, transplanted it into Ella during an eight-hour surgery.
The liver took immediately, Mazariegos said. Seven months later, Crow's liver is back to its normal size, he said. Ella's will continue to grow with her as her body grows.
On Friday, Ella sat between her mom and her donor and lifted her shirt, revealing a large horizontal scar encircling her abdomen.
Ella's aunts, Julie Horton, 33, of Warren and Kristen Mango, 25, of Leetonia, Ohio, sat off to the side, crying.
“There's a piece of her in that little girl, and if there wasn't, we wouldn't have her,” Mango said. “She was terminal. I mean, it was the end. When you're preparing yourself for the end and then you get that phone call that changes it all, it's ... overwhelming.”
This meeting almost did not happen.
Crow wasn't sure she wanted to meet the recipient, she said, because she didn't want Ella's family to feel like they owed her anything.
“I told my advocate, if they don't want to meet, I totally understand because they've been through so much already,” Crow said. “I just want them to be able to focus on Ella.”
She said she was uncomfortable being the center of attention but agreed to let media cover the meeting in hopes that others will become donors.
“I thought, ‘Wow, think of how those parents are feeling so hopeless,' ” Crow said. “I can't imagine what they were going through. And knowing that I'm able-bodied and can help ... I just wanted to make an impact on Ella and her family. I didn't want them to suffer and worry for their child. God calls us to help and love people in the best way we can. That's why I did it.”
On Friday, she brought toys for Ella, including a Dory book and colorful bowling set with ball and pins.
Ella took to Crow at once. She smiled at her constantly, touched her hair and played with a bracelet on her right wrist.
Suzy Diekmann stood off to the side, watching them bond.
She shook her head as yet more tears formed. Then she looked at Crow and whispered: “That woman saved Ella's life.”
Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.