Marzena Stasieluk needed a new kidney. She was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2015 and eventually required dialysis, a grueling process that involved a machine doing the work her kidneys could no longer do.
But for a kidney transplant to be successful, it first needed a liver. Stasieluk’s liver disease had been under control for more than a decade but worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. It wasn’t so bad that she would be prioritized for a liver from a deceased donor, her family said, but bad enough that a kidney transplant probably wouldn’t work.
Marzena’s daughter, Jennifer Stasieluk, is a nurse who has taken care of patients through the hardest times due to Covid-19 and cancer. She was ready, even eager, to give her mother a kidney. They had run all the scans and tests but it wouldn’t work.
Although they had the same blood type, her mother belongs to a subset of patients referred to as “highly sensitized.” Marzena had high levels of antibodies against foreign tissue – a factor that increases the likelihood of organ rejection and makes finding a matching organ much more difficult.
“She needed a new liver for a kidney transplant. Her liver alone wasn’t sick enough though,” recalls Jennifer, 29. “So they kind of threw up their hands and just said something like ‘sorry.’ ”
In January 2020, an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota led to a new idea: Doctors suggested that Marzena get part of a liver from a living donor.
Jennifer insisted that she get tested. Despite her mother’s protests, she didn’t take no for granted. And this time the response was good.
“I was kicking her door open in the morning when I got the call that I was a match. I said ‘Mom I’m a match, pack your bags, surgery’s in six weeks’. We couldn’t believe I was a match,” Jennifer said.
On June 25, 2021, Jennifer gave her mother a liver lobe. Jennifer spent five days recovering in the hospital and Marzena eleven.
But Marzena, affectionately called “professional grandma”, had to continue with dialysis and desperately longed for a normal life.
“It was awful. They sit there for three hours, three days a week,” said Marzena, who lives in Illinois. “My children and my grandchildren are the whole world and that’s why I’ve been fighting for so long. I don’t want them, the children and my grandchildren lose me.”
After the liver transplant, Jennifer was willing to donate a kidney to a stranger as part of a paired donation — a process that involves swapping the kidneys of living donors so recipients like Marzena can have a compatible organ.
Jennifer underwent another round of blood work and testing to prepare for the kidney donation. But then came a surprise: Due to the effect of Jennifer’s liver on her mother’s immune system, she was now able to give her mother a kidney.
“We never thought in a million years that I would be a direct match,” Jennifer said. “I’ve been looking forward to it. I wasn’t nervous. I knew I was in good hands.
“I gave her the larger liver lobe on June 25, 2021. And then, a year later, a kidney.”
dr Timucin Taner, department head of transplant surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, performed the liver transplant for the Stasieluks.
He and his colleagues have studied the effect of liver transplants on the immune system, including exploring how having a liver transplant before a heart transplant — not the typical order — can reduce organ rejection.
Taner said the Stasieluks are the first case they know of that a liver’s effect on a patient’s immune response allowed for a subsequent kidney transplant from the same donor. They plan to write a case report on the procedures.
“She donated two organs to the same person, a year apart,” Taner said of Jennifer. “So she saved her mother’s life twice.”
Taner says organ donors, living or deceased, are heroes. There simply aren’t enough organs to support everyone who needs one.
Across the country, nearly 106,000 people are on the national transplant waiting list, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Almost 40,000 transplants have been performed so far this year.
“On average, about 25,000 people in the US are on the waiting list for a liver transplant,” Taner said. “And we can only transplant about 9,000 of those each year because we only have so many livers.
Jennifer described working long late shifts as a nurse helping patients and their families during the height of the pandemic. There were dark days when answers were few and hope was sometimes hard to find.
“The loss of patients to Covid has been devastating. I felt so helpless,” Jennifer said.
But donating organs to her mother – twice – has been empowering.
“Just knowing that I can do something that isn’t hopeless … just having this power that I can actually do something and help her and save her life was amazing,” Jennifer said.
This will be the first Christmas in about seven years that Marzena feels healthy. Jennifer said it was more special than any holiday before.
Marzena said her daughter’s gifts changed her life.
“Today I am grateful. I don’t think I can ever say enough, thank you,” Marzena said, fighting back tears. “What do you say to a person who has donated two organs, not just one?”