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Co-worker's living donor organ donation gives Gail the gift of life

“I have no regrets,” organ donor Moe Shea said. “I gave a 17-year-old boy his mom. How could you ever regret that?”
Moe Shea (left) donated a portion of her liver to her colleague Gail Werner (right), who was suffering from advanced cirrhosis and liver failure.

When doctors told Gail Werner her liver was shutting down, she was shocked and afraid.

“Why am I finding this out now? I had routine physicals every year,” Werner thought, after receiving the news in 2007. She spent several moments processing the information. Then a calm fell over her, she said.

Gail suffered from advanced liver cirrhosis, a scary diagnosis. But her faith in God and the love and support she received from her family and friends gave her a sense of reassurance and hope. God would be with her every step of the way, she thought to herself.

Following the diagnosis, Werner’s health began to decline quickly; she moved in with her sister and then a friend because she needed help with day-to-day life. But then she learned of liver transplants performed at the University of Minnesota Medical Center using a living liver donor.

During the procedure, surgeons take the right lobe of the liver from a donor and transplant it to an ailing recipient. Unlike all other organs, the donor’s liver will regenerate to nearly its normal size over time, meaning the donor suffers no long-term impediments to liver function.

Searching for hope
“The liver is called the privileged organ,” said Hepatologist and Gastroenterologist Mohamed Hassan, MD, who cared for Werner at University of Minnesota Medical Center. The liver has earned this nickname, Hassan said, in part because it can regenerate. Patients having a liver transplant also need less immune-suppression than with other organs.

A living donation was the only option for Werner. She was low on the national transplant list because of her MELD score, a numerical value which prioritizes patients according to the severity of their liver disease. Siblings and relatives are often compatible, so Werner’s sister underwent testing. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a match.

As her health continued to deteriorate, Werner continued her full-time work at a banking and financial services company. Eventually, her colleagues learned of Werner’s search.

A gift from a colleague
Enter Moe Shea, Werner’s manager in the office.

“She was dying,” Shea said. “It was never an option to not donate if I was a match. I would have donated anything I could for any of my employees to save their lives.”

Shea underwent testing, and doctors determined she and Werner were compatible. Statistically, it’s uncommon for living donations to come from anyone other than a family member or close friend.

“I started crying,” Werner recalled of Shea’s match. “I was so grateful.”

Werner and Shea’s transplant procedure took place roughly one year after Shea learned she was a match. The procedure was successful, though Shea went through a complicated recovery, which is not uncommon, Hassan said. A liver will usually regenerate in about 12 weeks, though full recovery can take several months or longer.

In the few years since their transplant procedure, University of Minnesota Health care teams have made improvements that have shortened the evaluation timeline for liver transplant patients and improved patient outcomes, according to University of Minnesota Health Transplant Surgeon Srinath Chinnakotla, MD, the director of the M Health Living Donor Liver Transplant Program.

Learn more about liver transplantation through University of Minnesota Health.

“The care I received through University of Minnesota Health was amazing,” Shea said. “I trusted my mind, body and soul to them.”

Now, more than seven years after the transplant, Werner feels forever grateful for Shea’s gift.

“I wouldn’t be here without her,” Werner said. “Moe is the most inspiring, loving, giving human being I have ever known.”

For Shea, it was all worth it.

“I have no regrets,” she said. “I gave a 17-year-old boy his mom. How could you ever regret that?”