When the world falls away, Jeremy Traficant likes to say, put your trust in your family and your faith.
It’s a message the 20-year-old, his older sister Ashley and their parents Gwen and Jim have relied upon countless times over the last two decades.
Jim, 52 and Ashley, 23, both have primary schlerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare disease that causes inflammation and obstruction of the bile ducts, liver damage and—eventually—liver failure. Together, father and daughter have undergone three liver transplants, while Jeremy chose last year to donate a portion of his healthy liver to his sister.
Only 6,000 liver transplants occur each year in the United States, according to the American Liver Foundation. Though it’s not unusual for family members to donate organs to one another, to have three members of the same family either give or receive a donated organ is quite uncommon, according to Tim Pruett, MD, a transplant surgeon with University of Minnesota Health.
“They’re close-knit, they take care of each other and they pull for each other,” said Pruett, who performed two of the Traficants’ transplants. “They just seem like good people to me. I wish we had more of them.”
Decades of Chronic Illness
The Traficants’ transplant story began in 1999, when Jim received a living donor transplant from his neighbor in Virginia, where the family resides. Six years later, Jim’s transplanted liver became infected and he underwent a second transplant operation. Pruett, who was the head of the transplant program at the University of Virginia at the time, performed the second operation using a liver from a deceased donor.
The Traficants were impressed by Pruett’s confidence, expertise and compassion. So when doctors advised Ashley that she also needed a liver transplant in 2013, the Traficants sought out Pruett, who was now serving as the director of the Liver Transplantation Program at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.
Ashley’s physical condition deteriorated quickly last fall; her abdomen and legs became swollen, her muscles wasted away and she was confined to a wheelchair. Despite her imminent organ failure, she remained low on the deceased donor transplant list.
To save her daughter’s life, Gwen volunteered to donate a portion of her liver, but was disqualified because she wasn’t a precise match. At that point, Jeremy stepped up.
Jim and Gwen were extremely reluctant to have both their children on the operating table at once, but Jeremy’s fierce dedication and news that he was a match to Ashley swayed their opinions.
“I feel like God put this on his heart when he was a little boy,” Gwen said. “When I realized that he was very determined, that he had weighed things heavily, my mother’s heart was like, ‘Maybe I’m stepping in the way of something he was designed to do.’”
Jeremy and Ashley enjoyed the Minnesota winter during their recovery, and are now back on their feet. The family is preparing to return home early this year. After two decades living under the shadow of PSC, the Traficants are once again looking forward to the future. But they’re also giving thanks for their family bond—and for the contributions of Gwen, who navigated insurance systems, studied up on nutritional needs, dealt with family finances and became a steadfast caretaker.
“All of those things fell to Gwen, and she’s done it for 20 years,” Jim said.
The family is also thankful for Pruett and their multi-disciplinary care team at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. The Transplant Center is one of the nation’s largest and most experienced transplant programs. To date, care providers at the center have performed more than 13,000 organ transplants and living donor transplants at the center have some of the highest success rates in the nation.
“So many people don’t see that you have a life outside of this,” Ashley said. “[Our care providers] took the routine, the stuff they do every day, and they made it special. They didn’t see me as just a patient, but a person.”
“We came to the University of Minnesota not just for a cure,” said Jim Traficant. “We got our family back.”