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Son donated liver to his mom: ‘She’s always been there for me’

Son donated liver to his mom: ‘She’s always been there for me’

When Ruth Swanson’s liver began to fail, it was her son who became her living organ donor.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

She chauffeured him to baseball, basketball and football practices. She helped him type term papers. She cheered from the bleachers wearing the Warsaw Tigers school colors – black, white and orange.

And after one away game when the school’s quarterback broke his neck, it was his mom who helped him fashion clothing – even a Halloween costume – that would fit over his halo.

“We got x-rays the night before and scheduled a doctor’s appointment the next morning. As soon as we got the call mom said, ‘we’ll be right there,’” said Kevin Thompson. He was immediately put on a straight board. For weeks, he wore a halo to stabilize his cervical spine and help repair his neck injury.

It was his mom, Ruth Swanson, who helped him wash his hair, cut his t-shirts and add Velcro to connect his clothes to the contraption.

“I’ve always known she was there and supportive for me and my two sisters,” said Thompson.

So when his mom needed a liver transplant, Thompson didn’t hesitate. About 20 years ago Swanson, 70, was diagnosed with Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) – a rare disease that attacks the bile ducts. She was later diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

A resident of Warren, Ind. Swanson married her husband Dave, 30 years ago. Together they have 10 children, 24 grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.

Thompson, 49, is Swanson’s middle child. He was at breakfast with his mom in December 2019 when she first talked about needing a transplant. At her worst, Swanson said she had no energy, was shaky and slept about 18 hours a day.

“I’m a Type O and she needed a Type O for transplant,” said Thompson. “I thought to myself, ‘I am the same blood type and this is something I can do. From that point we checked with her IU Health doctor Marco Lacerda and learned about living liver donation,” added Thompson.

A living donor does not have to be related to the recipient. Compatibility is based on blood type (ABO). If the blood types do not match, there may still be options for living donation. Age and size are also taken into consideration.

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.

After the donation surgery, liver donors are monitored in the IU Health Transplant Intensive Care Unit for one to two days and then moved to the Organ Transplant Unit. The care team works closely with the donor to manage and minimize post-operative pain. Donors remain in the hospital as long as necessary but are usually discharged within one week after surgery.

On Nov. 11, 2020, Thompson donated his liver to his mother. They were in the care of IU Health transplant surgeons Dr. Chandrashekhar Kubal and Dr. Plamen Mihaylov.

“My recovery was slower but I’d say once I got to the six-month mark I started feeling back to normal,” said Thompson. “I would say to a potential donor – Number 1, ‘you will not regret it’ and Number 2 ‘the sacrifice you are making is minimal and the reward is beyond words.’”

Swanson does not have the words to express her gratitude.

“I don’t know how to tell him thank you. It’s given me 10 years or more of life and I can’t be more grateful,” she said. “Someone said, ‘I hope you’re not asking for much for Christmas,’ said Swanson. “There’s nothing I need.”

Thompson said he is the one who can’t explain his gratitude to his mother.

“I went to college at the University of Southern Indiana and was so home sick I moved back with mom and my stepdad. When I finished college she cooked for me and was so happy to have me,” said Thompson. Later in life, Swanson began a tradition of making her son tacos for his birthday dinner and when he got married and had children of his own it was his mom – now a grandma – who became famous for her Snicker doodles, Texas sheet cake, and family party planning.

“I know my sisters would have done the same for mom,” said Thompson. “She’s given us so much and she’s always been there for us. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.”

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