Living Legacy

Part of her liver works in her nephew, and they’re both alive to share the gift.

Illustration by Luke Brookes.
Illustration by Luke Brookes.

Tayten Krueger is pretty much your typical 6-year-old. Has hundreds of Legos. Likes Batman and SpongeBob SquarePants. Loves to swim. “A little fish,” says his aunt, Chelsie Peterson.

He’s also the atypical 6-year-old who’s received an organ transplant. In October of 2014, doctors took part of Peterson’s liver and gave it to Tayten, a procedure known as a live liver donation.

The liver – unlike other organs – can regrow, which is why surgeons could remove 35 percent of Peterson’s liver and implant it in Tayten. Her liver segment immediately began functioning and growing in him, and her liver regenerated as well. For both, the regrowth process took about 90 days.

At just 3 months of age, Tayten was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a life-threatening condition in infants in which the bile ducts do not have normal openings. Trapped bile builds up and damages the liver, which can lead to loss of liver tissue, scarring and cirrhosis.

So at 3 1/2 months, Tayten had a surgical procedure to reconstruct his bile ducts. “That worked for a while,” says Tayten’s mother Katie Krueger, a nursing student in Appleton. “But every time he got a fever, we would have to rush to Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee to get him on antibiotics, just in case it meant blocked bile ducts. It was pretty scary.” Tayten’s condition also stunted his growth.

The need for a transplant became obvious. “But we don’t have many deceased baby donors,” says Dr. Johnny Hong. He’s Tayten’s surgeon and director of the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Transplant Center, a joint effort between Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and the BloodCenter of Wisconsin. “So live liver donation was essentially Tayten’s only option. Fortunately, Chelsie was a perfect match for him anatomically.” This despite the fact that she’s not a blood relation to Tayten, but his step-aunt.

Leading up to the surgery, Peterson went through a battery of medical tests and an extensive psychological evaluation. “They tell you all the statistics about possible complications, not to scare you but to make sure you really want to do this,” says the 25-year-old Peterson, a cardiac sonographer at St. Luke’s Hospital. Risks for the donor can include surgical complications, damage to the healthy liver and even death. “I work in health care,” she says. “I knew what I was getting into.”

But Peterson was confident she and Tayten would be in good hands. Froedtert performed its first live liver transplant in 1999, and it’s the only provider in eastern Wisconsin doing the procedure, which accounts for only 3 percent of liver transplants in the United States.

“Liver surgery is always complex,” says Hong, “but doing a live liver transplant is more complex than a cadaver transplant because you have to retain the functioning portion of the liver in the live donor.” Tayten and Peterson were in surgery almost 12 hours, he at Children’s and she at Froedtert. The next morning, he had additional surgery to hook up his bile ducts.

Peterson stayed in the hospital for two weeks and recuperated at home for two months. She had no complications, although she did have considerable pain. Still, “I’d do it again,” she says. “There are so many children who don’t have this option and lose their lives. It’s worth a little bit of pain.”

Tayten stayed in the hospital 15 days and at the Ronald McDonald House for two more weeks. He continues to have regular blood draws and is on a variety of anti-rejection and immune suppression medication, plus supplements. The goal is to get him down to just the anti-rejection med, which he will require for the rest of his life.

“He’s a champ about taking his meds,” says Krueger. “And he acts so normal. You’d never know that he had a liver transplant last October.”

‘Living Legacy’ appears in the April, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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