One Organ, Two Lives Saved

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Posted Thu, Aug 4, 2016

 "Paula with Kelly" was captured by [Photo: Courtesy of Kaiser Medical Staff]

Paula Severseike, who survived a life-saving liver transplant while pregnant, poses with her healthy new born daughter Kelly.  [Photo: Courtesy of Kaiser Medical Staff]

LOS ANGELES, UCLA Medical Center – There’s a photo of Denverite Paula Severseike standing on top of a 14,000-foot mountain for her 50th birthday, a sweeping view of green, brown and blue in the background as the courageous climber’s hands are raised in the air, poised in victory. It’s a special picture for anyone to have, but particularly for Severseike, who knows all too well about life’s fragilities.

July 1 marked 23 years since Severseike received a liver transplant that ultimately saved her life. Her story is made even more remarkable knowing she was only the fourth person ever to have undergone such a procedure while pregnant.

“I thought I was perfectly healthy,” Severseike says. “The first trimester was really good — no problems, no morning sickness. Nothing. And then I got sick. Really fast. I started turning yellow and throwing up. I was very sleepy all the time.”

That’s when Severseike went to see a doctor. They thought it might be hepatitis, but she didn’t test positive for any of the kinds they knew. Severseike was advised to go home, rest up and see if she started to feel better.

“I didn’t,” Severseike says. “I got worse, a lot worse.”

 The Transplant

A few weeks later she went from her home in San Diego to a bed at the UCLA Medical Center, preparing for a liver transplant after being pushed to the top of the list because of her pregnancy. So many doctors were evaluating her severe condition and determined that this was her only option for survival.

“I was definitely in denial,” Severseike says. “When they sent in a social worker to talk to my husband and I, we kept looking at each other like ‘No, this is fine. I’m not that sick.’ And then afterward it was all so surreal, like a dream. It was a crazy time.”

Doctors eventually attributed her illness to fulminant hepatitis of unknown etiology, a very rapid decline of the liver and its functions that can turn into life threatening liver failure. Many times, the patient has no previous liver problems. As Severseike says, she was a “very healthy sick person.”

Paula Severseike standing on top of a Colorado's 14 teeters 14,000-foot mountain for her 50th birthday,

Paula Severseike celebrates her 50th birthday on top of a Colorado 14er. [Photo: Courtesy of Paula Severseike]

The timing of events also added to the seriousness of the situation. Severseike recalls the morbidity of it all, as the transplant neared Independence Day.

“I remember the doctors saying, ‘Well, you’re in luck. It’s the Fourth of July weekend and there are always a lot of accidents around this time.” She pauses before adding, “It was a really weird feeling – lying in the hospital waiting for someone to die so I could live.”

Fortunately, the surgery was a success, as the donated liver saved the lives of both mom and fetus.

“When I woke up from the transplant, I actually wasn’t sure what had gone on with baby Kelly,” Severseike says. “One of the nurses was writing a sign that said, ‘Patient is pregnant. Use care with X-rays.’ That’s how I learned she had survived,” she adds, tears forming in her eyes.

The results from the transplant were positive but also a double-edged sword.

A mere seven weeks after the procedure, Severseike went into labor three months before her due date. Doctors attributed the premature birth to the transplant. Kelly was born at just 2 pounds, 2 ounces and remained in the hospital for nearly five months with her own set of health problems.

“I couldn’t hold her for the first five weeks of her life,” Severseike says, whose focus quickly shifted to caring for her newborn daughter.

Gratefulness

Between the transplant and the premature birth, it was not an ideal way for the family to have their first baby. However, Severseike says she is very blessed and knows how, even though July 1, 1993 was a good day for her, it was as equally devastating for the family of the 14-year-old girl who lost her life and became a donor.

To honor her memory, Severseike named her second daughter Jackie, after the young teen. She has also donated flowers to her church in tribute and written letters to the girl’s mother.

“She lost her daughter. I just can’t imagine,” Severseike says.

The American Liver Foundation reports 6,000 liver transplants are performed annually in the United States. A shortage still exists, though, as each year more than 1,500 people die waiting for a liver to become available.

“Organ donation is very important to me,” Severseike says. “I volunteered for Donate Life for a while. It amazes me that everyone doesn’t do it, that everyone doesn’t sign up to be a donor. I think you should have to opt out [of registration], not opt in.”

Living life to its fullest is also very important to Severseike. She was a stay at home mom for 19 years to raise her two daughters and has remained very active to maintain her health. She loves yoga and many outdoor physical exercises, such as skiing and hiking those Colorado 14ers.

“I remember when we finally left the hospital, driving back home, how everything looked better, smelt better,” she says. “It was amazing. I try to hold on to and recall that feeling of how precious life is.”

About Kaitlyn Gartling

Kaitlyn Gartling is a Denver-area freelance writer.

View all posts by Kaitlyn Gartling

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