Patricia Alva will always remember the moment she learned that her newborn needed a liver transplant. “I was shocked, terrified,” says Alva. “I kept thinking: my goodness, what are we going to do?”
Alva and her husband, Irving Arriaga, had learned that baby Olivia had a cyst on her stomach 20 weeks into the pregnancy. After Olivia was born, doctors discovered the full extent of the damage. The cyst, located on Olivia’s liver, prevented her bile ducts — vital for digestion — from developing.
When Olivia was three weeks old, doctors performed a temporary procedure to hook up her liver to her intestine, but it didn’t work as well as expected. Olivia was losing weight. Her liver was failing. And at Seattle Children’s, Alva and her husband learned they had two choices. They could put Olivia on the transplant wait list with no guarantee that a liver would become available before her own failed, or they could find out if they were eligible to become living donors for their daughter.
Alva, thankfully, was a match. “I didn’t need to think about it,” she says. “This was my baby’s life.”
During a living-donor transplant, the surgeons remove a piece of the donor’s liver. Then the recipient’s malfunctioning organ is removed and replaced with donor tissue. Because the liver has a marvelous ability to regenerate, this “new” liver eventually grows to full size, and the donor’s liver grows back.
“The liver grows rapidly. In fact, in a matter of weeks, the donor’s liver is almost back to normal,” says Martin Montenovo, M.D., assistant professor in the Division of Transplant Surgery at UW Medicine. Montenovo led the transplant team — a collaboration between UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s — that took care of Olivia and her mother.
“The doctors at UW were amazing,” says Alva. “They were so kind, and I trusted them 100 percent that everything would be okay.”
Three days after surgery, Alva was released from the hospital. Six weeks later, she was back at work. Today, Alva is an ambassador for the living-donor program; Montenovo refers potential donors to her to learn more about the experience. Her natural warmth helps put other patients at ease.
As for Olivia, she is two years old — and thriving. She’s walking, she knows her alphabet, and she enjoys eating macaroni and cheese. She plays patty cake with her sisters, Brittany (13) and Paola (9), who love her dearly. And, like toddlers everywhere, she has a mind of her own.
“It was a gift to be able to do this for my baby, to give her the opportunity to live,” says Alva.