Joanne Heilman and Kay Warren, her sister-in-law’s sister, had known each other for decades and, although they were always friendly, they had never been close.

Still, when the pair saw each other in May of 2016, Kay didn’t hesitate when she learned that Joanne had a life-threatening liver disease and needed a transplant. “I told her that I would absolutely do that,” recalls Kay, who asked Joanne to put her in touch with her doctors to find out if she was a match.

It was a persistent rash combined with a feeling of lethargy that ultimately led Joanne to make an appointment with her doctor who, after performing several tests, delivered the news that she had end-stage liver disease. Her primary care physician recommended that she get in touch with the USC Transplant Institute at Keck Medicine of USC.

Her doctor explained that Keck Medicine had pioneered living donor transplants, a procedure in which a healthy person donates a portion of his or her liver to a patient whose liver is failing, and was the only living donor liver transplant program in Los Angeles County.

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“We started to perform living donor liver transplants to save the lives of patients like Joanne,” says Yuri Genyk, MD, professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and surgical director of the liver transplant program. “Due to the shortage of cadaveric organs, many patients don’t survive on the waiting list. Their death can be caused by a variety of complications of their liver disease, if the liver transplant is not performed on time.”

Though she knew that a living donor transplant was her best shot of survival, nobody in her immediate family qualified as a donor. Though not a blood relative, Kay turned out to be a match.

The pair had their surgery in January of 2017 and both women recovered nicely, though Joanne noted that she takes extra precautions not to get sick. She has now transferred back to her regular physician, but she remains in touch with the team at Keck Medicine, who is keeping tabs on her.

Kay has returned to work and to her workouts in the gym. She says that many people have asked her why she would have undergone an operation that wasn’t necessary for her, given that she was not sick. “The question shouldn’t be why would you do something like that, it should be why wouldn’t you?” she responds.

by Hope Hamashige