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How an uncle's liver donation to his toddler nephew saved both of their lives

An uncle's spontaneous decision to become a liver donor not only saved his 1-year-old nephew's life, it also dramatically changed his own.
/ Source: TODAY

Matt and Andrea Campbell's heart sank when they heard the news in 2019 that Matt was not an eligible donor for their 1-year-old son, who desperately needed a liver transplant.

That's when Andrea's younger brother, Grant, spontaneously volunteered to be the donor for his nephew. It ended up saving both of their lives.

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The couple from Homeworth, Ohio, spoke with Kate Snow on TODAY Thursday about Grant's selfless act and the inspiring journey that has resulted in a healthy, happy Brooks, who is now 2 years old.

The ordeal began on Nov. 6, 2019, when Matt and Andrea noticed that Brooks' eyes and skin looked yellow, which is a sign of jaundice. The next day they took him to their pediatrician, which led to a trip to the emergency room at nearby Akron Children's Hospital.

Two-year-old Brooks Campbell and his uncle Grant have a bond for life after Grant's lifesaving liver donation to his nephew. Courtesy of Steve Travarca/Cleveland Clinic

A day later, Brooks was being transported by ambulance to Cleveland Clinic Children's, where he was diagnosed with acute liver failure.

"Very worried because one, it's always a little scary feeling when they come in, and they can't figure out what's wrong, and how he looked and how he behaved and how he acted in the hospital was so different than what the labs were telling him," Matt Campbell told Snow. "So it's a little daunting, knowing that they can't figure it out, and you rely on all the doctors and nurses and all of their expertise. So it's scary from that standpoint."

"And then once they mentioned transplant, I can't imagine being any more worried than we were at that point," he continued.

Dr. Koji Hashimoto, the Cleveland Clinic director of living donor transplantation, made it clear to the Campbells that there was no time to waste in finding a donor for Brooks.

"It's very important to find a window to save his life," Hashimoto said on TODAY. "Usually acute liver failure gives us only just a few days to make a decision and to do a treatment."

"So if he would not have received a transplant, he would have died," Andrea said on TODAY. "You're in like fight-or-flight mode. And we were very much like, whatever needs done, let's do it."

Matt was hoping to be the donor, but after six hours of testing, doctors determined he had a blood clotting disorder that disqualified him. The rest of his family was also ruled out because they had the same disorder.

Andrea was 15 weeks pregnant at the time, so she also could not be a donor. Grant had flown up from Texas and was in the room when the couple found out the devastating news that they were ineligible.

"I just had I had this like gut feeling that I needed to come," Grant said on TODAY.

Grant volunteered on the spot.

"All of a sudden this wave of emotion came over me like, 'Oh my gosh,' like that was that's probably the reason I was feeling I was supposed to be here," Grant said.

By the next day, he was calling Andrea to say he had been cleared and Brooks was being prepped for surgery.

His decision came at a turbulent time in his life. He had recently moved away from his family to Texas, ended a relationship and had a new business fail, which had led to severe depression. He held back tears as he spoke about that time.

"I just felt worthless as a man and felt alone, unloved because I wasn't talking to anybody about this," Grant said. "I just went into isolation. And then by the end of January, I started having suicidal thoughts and thought about taking my own life."

"And I'm just so grateful that I didn't, because 10 months later, little Brooks needed me to be there. And if I hadn't been there, I don't know if he would have made it," Grant said.

On Nov. 13, 2019, Grant underwent a six-hour surgery and Brooks underwent a 13-hour transplant surgery led by Hashimoto that was successful.

Grant and Brooks showed off their scars from the lifesaving transplant. Courtesy of Steve Travarca/Cleveland Clinic

"I mean, talk about something you never expect to happen," Andrea said. "Not only do you never expect your child to go into organ failure, but you never expect your little brother to be the hero, to come in and save his life."

Grant's selfless act helped him as much as his nephew.

"So prior to us knowing for sure that Brooks was gonna go into surgery, Matt and I were sitting in the waiting room one night, and we were having a conversation about, I had had a pretty rough year up to that point, mentally, and I really struggled with figuring out what my purpose was, and feeling like I had a purpose," Grant said. "And so I remember when Matt took off his bracelet, and basically you pass the torch, pass the torch to me to be the donor. And he said, 'I guess you found your purpose.'"

"And I say all the time he saved my life," Grant said of his nephew.

Brooks and his "Uncle G" now having matching scars and a unique bond for life. They mainly see each other on FaceTime and Zoom due to the pandemic, but they did see one another in person in November.

Grant drove 20 hours from Texas to Ohio and quarantined with their parents for two weeks so that he could be there in person with Brooks, Matt and Andrea for the one-year anniversary of the successful transplant.

"For their first anniversary, I wrote Grant a letter because I feel like it's hard sometimes for me to fully try to express our gratitude towards him," Andrea said.

"You did a great job with that letter, it meant a lot," he told his sister. "That letter made me feel like you guys had seen and heard, like you understood, and not that I ever suspect that you didn't, but that letter meant a lot, I cried a lot. I still cry when I read it."

The family joked that there's nothing they could ever get Grant that would be equivalent to what he has given their son.

"Trust me, every birthday and holiday I'm like, 'Boy, its pretty hard to figure out what to do for this guy!'" Andrea said as they laughed.

Brooks is now a rambunctious 2-year-old whose liver is continually monitored by doctors. He sees five different specialists to also monitor other aspects of the autoimmune disorder that caused his liver failure, according to a blog post by Andrea for the Children's Organ Transplant Association.

"We really sit down every night and talk about it, how full of energy and full of life he is and full of personality," Matt said.

Brooks is also now a big brother to 8-month-old James, who was in the womb when Brooks was fighting for his life. James is named after their beloved "Uncle G" in a show of gratitude.

"And already they play together," Andrea said about Brooks and James. "And we laugh so hard every day watching them, and we just cannot wait to see them grow together."

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.