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Parents searching the planet for an organ donor for their ailing baby found their hero in a “Star Wars”-loving stranger.
Diana Rotter gave part of her liver to 1-year-old Natalia Walker during a multi-hour procedure last week, helping to save her life. The act of kindness left the little girl’s family awestruck.
“I cannot fathom how somebody can be so selfless,” Diane Walker, Natalia’s mom, told TODAY. “Somebody who would just go on the operating table. She had nothing to gain from it, so it’s humbling... it's an amazing person.”
Walker, who lives in Manassas, Virginia, had never met Rotter before this summer, but the two women turned out to share more than a corner of the galaxy.
First, the baby’s story.
Natalia was born on Nov. 17, 2014, with jaundice that never quite went away. By Christmas, she was back in the hospital for tests to figure out what was wrong. The diagnosis: biliary atresia, a rare and life threatening condition in infants.
Natalia’s bile ducts didn’t form correctly, trapping bile — a liquid that helps digest food — in her liver. As the bile builds up, it spills into the bloodstream and eventually damages the liver.
Most children with biliary atresia will die from liver failure within the first couple of years of life without medical intervention, said Dr. Thomas Fishbein, Natalia’s doctor and executive director of the MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute.
In January, another hospital made the first attempt to fix the problem with a surgery to bypass the blocked ducts, but it didn’t work.
It was clear Natalia needed a new liver. By April, she was placed on the national organ transplant waiting list.
You may not think about your liver very much, but besides keeping you healthy and alive, it’s also unique: It’s the only organ in your body that can regenerate itself.
This amazing ability makes it possible for a living donor to give part of his or her liver to someone in need. The donor’s liver grows back within three months, while the portion inside the recipient grows as well, Fishbein said.
Natalia’s mom and dad looked into donating, but they were above the required weight range. Other relatives also were ruled out. Thus, the family placed its hopes in the organ transplant waiting list.
“You just don’t know what to expect. You don’t know if the call is going to come. You’re just waiting,” Walker said. “My baby would not live without a liver.”
In July, the family held a christening for Natalia. Among the guests: Joy, a former co-worker Walker has been friends with for 13 years.
Joy went home crying afterwards and told her daughter Diana Rotter: “This baby is not going to survive without a liver.”
“My mom had been talking about them in general for months,” Rotter, 30, who lives in Denton, Maryland, told TODAY. “She asked me if I would ever consider donating my liver… and I said sure.”
This is how Diane Walker first met Diana Rotter.
In mid-August, Rotter began the lengthy process to see if she could donate. A blood test revealed she was a match. She then had to undergo an MRI and an angiogram. Various tests continued all the way into November.
Watching the baby’s status deteriorate, the medical team decided “we need to pull the trigger now,” Fishbein recalled.
“This baby had very advanced cirrhosis,” he noted. “She would have died within another couple of months.”
Rotter finally met the little girl who would get part of her liver last week. On Nov. 17, Natalia’s first birthday, the baby and the woman who would save her life were lying on operating tables in adjacent rooms at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
While one medical team worked to remove 20 percent of Rotter’s liver — enough for an infant — Fishbein was in the next room ready to take out the baby’s liver and replace it with the donor’s portion. It’s a perfectly synchronized operation that takes weeks of planning.
Rotter’s surgery took about four hours, while the baby’s lasted almost twice as long. Fishbein not only had to connect Natalia’s new liver, but fix other problems that sometimes accompany biliary atresia.
“She was put together like a jigsaw puzzle that was put together wrong on the inside. Things were all in the wrong place,” he explained.
The baby’s prognosis after all of that? Excellent, Fishbein said.
Biliary atresia does not recur after a transplant. As long as the surgery goes well and the organ works, the likelihood of long-term success is “very, very high,” Fishbein noted. The little liver will grow with Natalia as she turns into an adult.
Rotter was feeling fine after the surgery and discharged from the hospital on Sunday. She is taking a month off from her job as a movie theater manager to recover, using her vacation and sick time to replace the lost pay. It’s not enough to cover everything, so she may lose a week of income.
“(Natalia) is doing well so that’s all I really care about,” she said.
Her big focus now is recovering in time to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Rotter, a big “Star Wars” fan ever since she watched the original trilogy in reverse order as a child, has already bought her ticket for Dec. 17.
“I’m super stoked for the new movie coming out,” she said.
Meanwhile, Walker is still thinking about all the connections in their lives. A coworker’s daughter saved her daughter. Diana’s liver helped Diane’s baby. Rotter’s middle name is Lynn, while Natalia’s is Ellyn. She finds all the similarities remarkable.
With the baby scheduled to leave the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, there’s much to celebrate.
“Last year, we were thankful for the baby and now we’re just thankful that we’ve gained so many new members to our family,” Walker said. “Now we’re related: Diana is a part of my daughter so we’ve gained new family. Diana has given my daughter a chance to live.”