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Last updated: Saturday, 14-Mar-2009 19:10:18 Central Daylight Time

February 2, 2001


UW-RF Student Saves Dad's Live with Transplant

Donating a part of our body to save a life is a noble thing to do, but it is not something we expect to do while we are still alive.

For Melissa Donnay a senior majoring in elementary education at UW-River Falls, the opportunity presented itself last fall. Her father was gravely ill and in need of a liver transplant, but there were no livers available to him. Time was running out, so Melissa bravely made the decision to donate part of her liver. On Oct. 17, Melissa and her father, Mark, participated in a living donor transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Because of Melissa, her father has a new lease on life. But she doesnšt seem to think what she did was extraordinary. "It is what anyone would have done," she says.

Her personal physician throughout the process sees it differently.

Said Dr. David Brandhagen, a hepatologist at the Mayo Clinic, "Melissa is a remarkable young woman with a maturity beyond her years. Though she understood the issues and risks involved in the surgery, she was committed to her decision to go through with it."

Brandhagen said there is a one-half to one percent mortality rate with this type of surgery when performed on an otherwise healthy person, such as Melissa. There is also a 10-15 percent chance of major morbidity, such as complications from bile problems or bleeding, which might require additional surgery.

Mark Donnay had been sick for four years with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease that affects only about one person in 100,000,. As the disease progressed, it became apparent that he would eventually need a liver transplant. Mark has type O blood, the most common type. This made it unlikely that he would get a cadaver liver from a person who had died, because so many others were ahead of him on the waiting list.

Then, in the spring of 2000, the first living donor liver transplant was performed at Rochesteršs Methodist Hospital. The Donnays contacted the hospital immediately when they heard the news, and doctors there determined that the living donor option was the best, and probably the only, option for Mark.

Family members were tested for compatibility with Mark, and, miraculously, Melissašs blood type and body type were found to be a match. Because she was the only one of the four children in the family who was over the age of 21, she was the only possible donor.

It was a matter of only about four months from the time Melisssa was first tested in June 2000 to the surgery on Oct.17.

Melissa took it in stride. "I wasnšt scared," she said. " I donšt think anyone in the family thought twice about what we were doing. Once we realized a transplant was a possibility, nothing was going to hold us back."

Melissašs positive attitude came as no surprise to Dean Karen Viechnicki, of the College of Education & Graduate Studies. "From the first time I met Melissa, she demonstrated a take-charge attitude," she said. "The energy and spirit she exhibited while working for us demonstrated great strength of character."

The surgery went well for both patients, and they were home way ahead of schedule. "We were expected to be recovering in Rochester for five weeks, and we were both home after three and one-half weeks," Melissa said. Melissašs liver has regenerated to its full size, and so has her dadšs. She has returned to student teaching, and Mark has gone back to work part-time at the post office.

Throughout the process, Melissa managed to stay in school and continue to work toward her degree. "The University has been so understanding and willing to work with me," said Melissa. She lived at her home in Norwood, Minn., while student teaching a second-grade class at Trinity Lutheran School in nearby Waconia.

This allowed her to be with her 15- and 17-year old brothers, Chad and Brandon, in case a cadaver liver became available for her father. It also allowed her 20-year-old sister, Stacy, a UW-RF junior majoring in pre-elementary education, to stay in school. Then, when the living donor transplant became an option, living at home was definitely the most convenient arrangement.

"Dee McCollum, my supervisor, came all the way to Waconia to observe me while teaching," Melissa said. "We got one visit in before the surgery, and will arrange the other two for spring semester."

McCollum, coordinator of field experiences in the College of Education and Graduate Studies at UW-RF, said, "Normally, we donšt place students that far from campus unless another college agrees to handle the supervision. We couldnšt find another college to do it, so we worked out this arrangement with Melissa. We would do the same thing for any student facing a similar crisis."

McCollum said it was a particular pleasure to help Melissa because she is so helpful to others. Faculty members at Trinity commented on her willingness to help the teachers there and her positive attitude, considering the stress in her life over the past year.

Carol Donnay, Melissašs mother, is grateful that everything has gone so well, but she is afraid to let her guard down completely. "With a transplant, there is always the possibility of rejection of an organ," she said. "If Mark makes it through the four-month checkup, that will be very good. If he reaches the one- year mark, that is even more promising."

For now, she says, "It is just good to see my husband taking a second helping at the dinner table, or leaving to go ice fishing. It is a blessing to have those things back."

The experience has changed the lives of the Donnays in many ways, and family members are anxious to share what they have learned about donor transplants. They are making it their mission to raise awareness about the critical shortage of organs and encourage people to donate.

Carol said driveršs education classes usually do not cover the topic of organ donation , nor do they teach students what it means to check the box on their driveršs license. "Schools in four communities in our area are now incorporating this information into their classes," she said.

Even more important is a living will, she said, because in some states the box checked on a driveršs license isnšt legally binding, and the family of the deceased can choose not to honor it. A living will, however, cannot be changed by the family.

"If more people understood the importance of donating organs, we wouldnšt have had to put two people in our family through major surgery," said Carol. "There may have been a liver for Mark when he needed it."


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