Shared liver working for donor, recipient

Michele Fleeger and 14-month-old Summer Laforme are all smiles at their three-month check up after Fleeger of Volant, donated a portion of her liver to Laforme. Summer, of Lackport, New York, developed biliary atresia when she was three weeks old. Since the June 13 surgery, she returns to Children’s Hospital every six weeks for blood work. During these trips, she and her family often reunite with Fleeger and her family.

In June, Michele Fleeger donated between 25 and 30 percent of her liver to an ailing child. Now, four months later, the Volant resident reports that both are doing well.

October is National Liver Awareness Month and the liver is one of the body’s most vital organs. National Liver Awareness Month was created to encourage the practice of good health habits that will support a healthy liver.

On June 13, Fleeger became an altruistic living organ donor, providing a portion of her liver to then 11-month-old Summer Laforme of Lockport, New York.

An altruistic donor is one who donates an organ, or portion of an organ, to someone who is not a relative and who they have no connection with the organ recipient

“We’re both doing well,” Fleeger said. “Summer has returned to New York and visits UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh every six weeks for blood work.

“We’ve become like members of each other’s families. When they drive down (to Pittsburgh) we’ll meet them in Grove City or I’ll drive to Pittsburgh.”

Fleeger, whose small stature made her a good potential match for a child, even though she is in her 40s, said she encourages others to consider becoming an organ donor. Potential live organ donors age 55 and older can be living organ donors to adults. In addition to livers kidneys and lungs can be donated.

“I had my surgery in Montefiore Hospital and Summer had hers at Children’s,” Fleeger said. “Her surgeon came into my surgery and personally checked the liver and took it to Summer.”

At her three-month check up following the surgery, Fleeger said, “they told me my liver had grown back and was at 100 percent of function. I’m glad I am healthy enough to provide a liver to a sick child.” 

Summer developed Biliary atresia, a rare and often fatal disease of the liver and bile ducts, when she was three weeks old. The rare condition is seen in 1 in 8,000 births in the United States and in 1 in 18,000 births worldwide.

The transplanted liver is expected to grow in Summer as she gets older.

“It’s been amazing to see how great she looks now,” Fleeger said. “Her color is much better. She’s a happy baby.”

Fleeger said Summer is not yet walking on her own, “but they carry her around most of the time. She has a sister about one year older so I’m sure that she’ll soon be chasing her.”

Fleeger noted that Summer’s verbal skills are good for her age.

“People don’t think that they can be donors,” she said. “They can. It is something more should consider.”

A massage therapist, Fleeger was off work for three months following the surgery but is glad to be back to work now.

“I had the support of so many family members and friends during my recovery,” she said. “They made meals, raised money for me and for Summer. I’m grateful that everything worked out so well for both of us.”

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Nancy Lowry is a former reporter at the New Castle News, retiring Dec. 31, 2019, after many years covering government, school boards and writing feature stories.

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