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Two mothers connected by a liver and a love of family

IU Health University Hospital

Two mothers connected by a liver and a love of family

They live about a mile apart and are joined by distant relatives. Now two women share something else - one donated her liver to the other.

By TJ Banes, IU Health Senior Journalist,

On a recent day, in the basement of IU Health University Hospital two families were joined in a surgery waiting room. To some it may have appeared to be a reunion of sorts. They weren’t strangers, but they also weren’t relatives. They were the mother, sister, spouse, and brother of two women undergoing a life-altering surgery.

The four family members wore matching green t-shirts with the words: “Support Squad.” As they patiently waited, their loved ones were giving and receiving a liver transplant.

organ donation support team

April is National Donate Life Month. These two women - Amelia Fisse and Sara Schwering - want to bring attention to living organ donation.

Schwering said it was completely out of the blue that she began having GI symptoms. Tests showed an inflammatory bowel disorder - possibly associated with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). The chronic liver disease causes bile ducts to become inflamed, scarred and eventually blocked. On her birthday, Nov, 22, 2021, Schwering met IU Health gastroenterologist Dr. Lauren Nephew. By January 2022, she was listed for a liver transplant.

Schwering and Fisse are both Greensburg residents and live about a mile apart. They both work in different departments at Decatur Memorial Hospital. Fisse’s husband and Schwering’s brother are childhood best friends.

“We weren’t strangers and we are distantly related - our grandfathers were cousins,” said Schwering. “We joke that now we’re closer friends than we are relatives.” That close connection was sealed on Feb. 16, 2023 when Fisse, 40, became a living liver donor for Schwering, 34. They were in the care of IU Health’s Dr. Chandrashekhar Kubal.

According to Donate Life Indiana, more than 100,000 men, women and children nationally are waiting at any given moment for a lifesaving organ transplant. More than 1,000 of those waiting are Hoosiers. Last year 4.2 million Hoosiers signed up to be organ donors; 276 organ donors saved the lives of others needing lifesaving transplants, 949 lifesaving organs were transplanted to recipients.

At IU Health many recipients receive kidney and liver transplants from living donors. Last year, IU Health performed 473 adult and pediatric organ transplants - 237 kidney transplants; 22 pancreas transplants; 160 liver transplants, and 10 intestinal transplants. IU Health ranked among the top 10 transplant programs in the nation for liver, total pancreas; and intestinal transplants. IU Health also performed 14 heart transplants and 30 lung transplants last year.

IU Health’s Transplant program is not only nationally known by the number of patients served, but also by the team members in the program. Patients come from across the country and even outside the United States.

“Before this, Amelia didn’t know you could be a living liver donor. We wanted people to know you can,” said Schwering, the mother of two girls ages seven and five. Fisse is a foster mom and the parent of a son, 7, and a daughter, 6.

“I didn’t really have any reservations about becoming a donor,” said Fisse, who recently lost a cousin from complications of liver disease. “I saw the impact it had on their family and knew that if I could do something for this mom, I would.”

An organ from a living donor can function better and last longer than one from a deceased donor because it is healthy. Liver donation is done by working with a team of IU Health transplant experts including surgeons, donor coordinators, social workers, dietitians, pharmacists, and financial coordinators.

Living donors undergo an initial screening, multiple tests and evaluations. The transplant involves removing a portion of the donor’s liver and then using it to replace the diseased liver in the recipient. The liver regenerates and returns to full function within a month. Both kidney and liver donors are typically discharged from the hospital within a few days.

Fisse said she felt better after the first week and a half. By spring break she was able to travel to a national park.

“Getting a new liver was about watching my girls grow up,” said Schwering. “I work full time and was jaundiced, and so fatigue I’d have to come home a take a nap. Now I have so much more energy and can enjoy playing with my kids.”

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