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Liver donor: Organ donation was “an overwhelming opportunity” to help

Faced with liver failure after battling histiocytosis, 19-year-old Brita Johnson needed a helping hand. She got one when her older brother volunteered to become a living liver donor.
Brita Johnson (right) poses with her brother Jacob (center), and University of Minnesota Health Transplant Surgeon Srinath Chinnakotla, MD, (left). In 2015, Jacob donated a portion of his liver to his sister.

For much of her life, Brita Johnson lived with a cancer-like condition called histiocytosis, which occurred when Johnson’s own immune cells attacked her body, leaving her with significant medical issues.

Chemotherapy and radiation eventually cured her, but the histiocytosis ravaged her liver. At 19 years old, Brita's liver was failing and she was in desperate need of a transplant.

“Medical issues were my entire life when I had histiocytosis. I grew up going to a lot of doctor appointments, spending a lot of time in the hospital, and having very limited energy to live a normal life,” said Brita. “Even when the histiocytosis was under control, I knew I wasn’t completely better. Then I started vomiting blood and we knew that transplant would be my only option.”

There are more than 121,000 people waiting for an organ donation in the United States, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Every 10 minutes, a new patient is added to the waiting list.

Thankfully, Brita's wait was cut short when a special donor stepped forward: Her older brother Jacob.

“I was in disbelief,” she said. “Jacob had never really had any experiences with hospitals or surgery, other than supporting me, so I was nervous for him but also so grateful.”

Learn more about living donor liver transplant procedures.

The Road to Transplant

Brita and Jacob knew the donation and subsequent recovery would incur additional medical expenses and keep them from working, so the siblings started a successful crowd-funding campaign that brought in more than $10,000. 

On June 10, 2015, Brita and Jacob were admitted to University of Minnesota Medical Center. There, University of Minnesota Health Transplant Surgeons Timothy Pruett, MD, Srinath Chinnakotla, MD, and M Health solid organ transplant teams removed a major part of Jacob's liver and transplanted it to Brita.

“The liver is an amazing organ and critical for good health,” said Chinnakotla. “Unlike the kidney or heart, it’s possible to remove part of a donor’s liver and transplant to the recipient where it will regenerate and help the recipient recover. It’s an incredibly rewarding gift to give.” 

Learn more about our transplant services.

The recovery was smooth, though both experienced some pain. Within weeks Brita was feeling more energetic than she had ever felt before. Now, less than one year on, Brita has returned to college and eventually wants to work in a children's hospital as a Child Family Life specialist.

Worth the Reward

For his part, Jacob is glad – glad that he could finally make a difference in his sister’s journey. 

Jacob’s sentiment mirrors that of a recent study published in the journal Liver Transplantation, which showed 97 percent of living liver donors had a high level of satisfaction after the procedure and would donate again. Chinnakotla, who oversaw the study, said that living liver donors had a higher average quality of life.

“Growing up as the big brother, you always want to help out, but I could never really do that with Brita. She was sick and I couldn’t help her,” said Jacob. “But when I found out that I was a match, there was no question. It was an overwhelming opportunity.”

April is Donate Life Month. To learn more about living or deceased donation, contact University of Minnesota Health or LifeSource respectively.