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Daughter-mother live miles apart, connected by love and liver donation

IU Health University Hospital

Daughter-mother live miles apart, connected by love and liver donation

This mother and daughter live more than 1,000 miles apart but share a special bond and celebrate February 14 as “National Donor Day.”

By TJ Banes, IU Health Senior Journalist,

Indiana is familiar turf for Gina Ernst. She grew up in Terre Haute and attended Indiana University where she studied business and psychology. Over the years she lived in Las Vegas, Nev., Long Beach, Calif., and now Denver, Colo.

It was her mom’s health that brought Ernst back to a familiar state. About six years ago, Debra Nidlinger, who still lives in Terre Haute, became a patient of IU Health. Liver complications resulted in her needing a transplant.

“Her MELD score wasn’t high enough to qualify for transplant. She was 70 then and she’s now 72,” said Ernst of her mother’s illness. According to the Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network, the Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) is a calculated formula used to assign priority to most liver transplant candidates age 12 and older based on their medical urgency. Nidlinger was diagnosed with Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and was in the care of IU Health’s Dr. Niharika Samala.

“At her worst, she was so sick she couldn’t get out of bed. She’d have a couple of good days and then she would be sick,” said Ernst of her mother. “We are very close and even though we live a distance apart we still see each other four or five times a year.” Married to Mark Ernst, Gina is the mother to four girls, ages 11, 13, and twins, age 9.

Throughout her life, Ernst has enjoyed family beach vacations, shopping with her mom, spending holidays together and cooking with all the girls. When her mother’s illness became critical, Ernst said she had no doubt she’d do whatever it took to help.

“My daughter originally tried to go through the donor regiment but then she stopped because of our weight difference. I lost weight and time went by and I was in better health to move forward with transplant,” said Nidlinger.

In July 2020 IU Health restarted the living liver transplantation program. Living liver donors help give renewed health to people experiencing liver failure. Potential donors undergo a series of tests and screenings and work with a team of practitioners including qualified nurses, surgeons, physicians, social workers, transplant coordinators, financial navigators, procurement specialists, and other staff members dedicated to excellent clinical care.

Ernst underwent the screening process along with her brother and a nephew. In the end, she was the best candidate for living liver donation. February 14 is “Living Donor Day” a time to raise awareness of the life-saving benefits of donation, including organs, tissues, marrow, platelets, and blood.

“I always knew I’d do it, but it seemed out of reach. I prayed a lot that I’d be strong and after talking to Dr. (Chandrashekhar) Kubal, I felt confident,” said Ernst. Dr. Kubal is a transplant surgeon at IU Health, which ranks among the top 10 national programs for liver transplantation. Last year, IU Health surgeons performed 189 adult and pediatric transplants surpassing the previous highest number in the history of the program.

On Oct. 19, 2023, Ernst and her mother were in the care of the IU Health transplant team when they underwent living liver donation.

“My care at IU Health was amazing. Everyone was so caring and so professional. I think my team was God-sent,” said Nidlinger, who has been married to her husband, Jimm for 54 years.

As Nidlinger and Ernst went through the lifesaving procedure, their husbands waited outside surgery.

“What was amazing is that we were supposed to have the surgery a couple days earlier but I had a sinus infection. While we waited, Dr. Kabul was performing other transplants, saving other lives. It really hit me how big this is and I can’t say enough about the nurses and doctors,” said Ernst, 45.

Living liver donation involves removing a portion of a donor’s liver and then using it to replace a diseased liver in the recipient. While a living liver donor faces the typical risks of surgery, the liver regenerates and returns to full function within a month. Donors are admitted to the hospital early the morning of surgery. The surgery lasts from six to eight hours.

In a matter of months, Ernst was back to jogging and running to her daughters’ school and sports activities. And her mother was able to make a recent trip to Denver.

“My advice to others considering becoming a living donor is to have the support and care afterward and then to do it. You could save someone’s life and that’s a miracle.”

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