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Giving More than the Gift of Life

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ECS Colleagues Have Special Connection after Living Donor Transplant 

By Daniel Meyer

It is a gift many people have the power to give, yet very few people would ever consider participating in a living donor organ transplant.

But for Kelly McMahon, it was a no-brainer.

After learning details of Tammy Peters’ almost two-decade old struggle with a progressive liver disease, McMahon made a decision earlier this year that not only gave Peters hope for an end to her ongoing health struggles, but that also brought her a greater appreciation for just how precious life is.

It has now been a little over two months since Peters and McMahon, both teachers at Ellicottville Elementary School, went through a living donor liver transplant procedure, a surgical miracle in its own right, given that both adult women are recovering from the operations that brought Peters a new outlook on life and helped McMahon appreciate her own mortality.

“As someone who was always fortunate to have good health, I think it is important to do what you can to assist someone else who does not have the ability to truly enjoy life because of some type of health problem,” says McMahon. “I did what I did because it was the right thing to do because someone I knew needed help. I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Nearly 20 years of struggles

Peters was diagnosed with a liver condition when she was 16 years old, receiving the news shortly after making a simple donation at a blood drive back when she was a student at ECS. What followed was a seemingly never-ending battle with numerous doctors’ appointments, evaluations by medical specialists and time at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester throughout the rest of high school and college.

Peters never gave up her fight, but was constantly concerned about her long-term health status as medical experts struggled even to get a clear diagnosis of her disease. Eventually, it was diagnosed as primary sclerosing cholangitis, whose only known cure is liver transplantation. She had been on the waiting list for a cadaveric liver donation since 2012.

“It was a real struggle for me, my family and friends,” said Peters. “I got frustrated, I had some real setbacks. You try and stay positive and keep holding out hope, but sure, there were times where I was greatly concerned about everything.”

As time went on, Peters, a 1997 graduate of ECS, remained focused and persevered, moving forward with her career in education, eventually landing a job as a teacher at her alma mater. It was there that she met McMahon, a fellow educator who teaches special education in grades three through six.  While colleagues, the two were never particularly close, which made what McMahon did all the more impressive.

‘I was blown away’

“Kelly had been asking me about how I was feeling and how things were going and it seemed to me that she was just like my other co-workers, someone who was showing compassion and asking questions and being supportive,” recalls Peters. “But one day in February she told me she had been doing research on living donor transplants and wanted to know what we needed to do to see if she might be a donor candidate. I was totally shocked and it really felt like it came out of the blue, but I later found out she had been giving it a lot of thought. I was blown away.”

From there the two had batteries of tests and medical procedures, eventually leading to official approval in June by doctors at the Cleveland Clinic for McMahon to donate the right lobe of her healthy liver the following month.

Through it all, Peters was greatly humbled and still struggles at times to comprehend how someone she saw in the hallways at work but didn’t know particularly well was so willing to make a sacrifice that would greatly impact her both personally and professionally.

“It felt surreal as our surgery date approached that she was on board and, while I know she gave it a lot of thought and I know everyone who agrees to do this has some uncertainty about how exactly it will turn out, she still seemed to be quite at ease about the whole thing,” recalls Peters. “It just shows that you never really know a person until something like this takes place.”

Until the transplant, Peters exhibited all the symptoms typical of liver disease, including constant itching and jaundice, which yellows the skin and the whites of the eyes. After the transplant on July 6, her liver function immediately started to improve.

“A nurse came to see me the day I woke up after surgery and said my eyes were white again!”

The transplant also gave her a new outlook after so many years of health issues and the devastating loss of her daughter, Amelia, who was born prematurely in 2010 and died due to complications from her mother’s disease.

“I’m still recovering [from the surgery] and have been told by my doctor that I will need to stay on medical leave from work until at least January 2016, perhaps longer,” said Peters, who is home now but relies on her husband Mark and their eight-year-old son, Merek, to help her with various tasks around the house.

“I still have a way to go, but I can say my life has totally changed and I now look at everything with a different perspective. What Kelly did for me has made me appreciate everything I have. Even with so many years of dealing with this, I am grateful for all that I have experienced in life and I am really looking forward to whatever is in store for me in the future.”

After going through her own recovery from the procedure, McMahon’s remaining liver is quickly regenerating and she is back working full-time at school, happy to see the familiar faces of so many people who supported her and Peters before, during and after the transplant.

“I can’t mention everybody because I don’t want to forget anyone, but we had so many great supporters, including our co-workers, students and other people from the community,” said McMahon. “There were constant phone calls and e-mails and cards and we carried all along on a constant wave of support, love and unbelievable caring.”

‘Kelly is like a sister to me now’

Peters points out how close she and McMahon have become since their successful surgery.

“Kelly is truly amazing,” she said. “It is so hard to put into words the gratitude you have for someone who risked her own health and her own life just so yours could be saved and improved. Kelly is like a sister to me now, we have become so close. She never wanted any fame or glory and believes that a true hero is someone who doesn’t receive any personal benefit for committing an act of kindness.”

McMahon remains committed to the reason she offered to be Peters’ donor.

“We all see and hear and read about people who have to struggle with something, many who are even much worse off than Tammy was before our surgery,” said McMahon. “I just felt so strongly about doing what I could to help and I am confident that there are other people out there who think and feel the same way and will know when to act when called upon to do so.”

As for organ donation, Peters and McMahon both encourage people to learn about Unyts, a leading procurement organization in Buffalo that is one of only eight centers in the country to house organ, tissue and eye procurement in one location (www.unyts.org). Then, educate yourself about how you could potentially make a difference by giving the gift of life.

“Find out if it is something you can do, and if you can, why not?” said McMahon. “When I told my husband I was thinking of doing this, that’s exactly what he told me. He said ‘if you can do it, you should do it.’ So I did, because it was the right thing to do.”

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