A Castle Rock mom who lost her son aids in a life-saving transplant for a critically ill friend

Posted at 10:40 PM, Dec 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-22 00:41:28-05

This may be the perfect gift this holiday season. It involves two remarkable families that have been drawn together through loss, love and an incredible life-saving gesture. 

It begins with a young man from Castle Rock who loved mountain climbing. 

"Smartest, funniest kid, wicked sense of humor.  He was very, very bright," said his mom, Karen Kennedy. 

Cole Kennedy was just 23 when he was killed while mountain climbing in Peru. 

Rushing to his family's side were long-time Castle Rock neighbors and friends, Lisa and Steve Rice. 

"Steve and Lisa were probably some of the first people here. I remember that," said Karen. 

The two families are quite close. They have vacationed together over the years. 

Their boys, Eric and Cole enjoyed hanging out together and were the same age. 

"Our fondest memory is when we went to Cancun -- playing on the beach," said Eric Rice. 

Fast forward 2 1/2 years after Cole's death, and Eric is in need of a liver transplant. 

"Eric probably had an abnormality that's been there since birth," said Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret, Chief of Transplant Surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital Transplant Center. 

But just four days before the transplant in August, an unforeseen circumstance caused the surgery to be called off. 

The Rice family was devastated.  

But their friend -- Cole's mom, Karen Kennedy -- had an idea. 

"I was like at the lowest low and then Karen comes in and saves the day," said Eric.

Karen is a registered nurse who has seen a lot of sick people in her time. 

So, just one day after Eric got the bad news that his life-saving liver transplant was called off, Karen offered a part of her own liver. 

"I could not watch Steve and Lisa lose a kid. I couldn't," said Karen. 

Forty-seven tests later, Karen proved to be something no one in the Rice family could be:  the perfect liver match for Eric. 

"When we would ask her about it and say, 'Karen, are you sure about this?' There was no turning her down.  She was not going to take no from anyone," said Steve Rice. 

Karen and her husband, Jim, talked about the decision, but they never hesitated. 

"He (Jim) said, 'What would you do to get Cole back?' And I said, 'I would give my life, in a second.'  So, if all I have to do is give part of my liver to get Eric back, that's not a hard decision," said Karen. 

The Rices, on the other hand, worried about Karen. 

"Why put someone else at huge risk for potentially death in the operating room when there are other options," explained Eric. 

But those other options are not always there. 

"I think when you realize the number of people on the donor list, we're not sure if Eric would have ever made it to get a deceased donor," said Lisa Rice. 

Karen and Eric say the true heroes in this story are the transplant surgeons at the University of Colorado Hospital Transplant Center.  

Chief of Transplant Surgery Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret has performed more live donor liver surgeries than anyone in the country. 

"It is taking a portion of the healthy donor's liver. We're taking typically the larger lobe, about 60 percent in most circumstances, and transplanting that into the person who needs the transplant after the entire liver is removed," explained Dr. Pomfret. 

The surgery in early November was a success. 

Today, more than a month later, Karen and Eric's livers are regenerating. 

They will each reach 100 percent of what they need within a year or less. And Eric's new liver will assume his age of 26. 

"I think he looks great.  He looks better than he's looked in probably almost two years," said Lisa. 

Karen would like to think she would make the same decision to donate if her son were still alive. 

But she knows that Cole, who was born on Christmas Day, provided much of her inspiration.  

And now their friend, Eric, will live to see many more Christmases thanks to Karen's gift of life. 

"There are a lot of people who need a life-saving organ who are sick, but they're not close to death. And if it wasn't for people like Karen it would never happen," said Eric. 

"And you think about, how do you ever give back to that person? And to that family?  And you really can't," said Lisa. 

"What Karen did for Eric is not only a gift for Eric, it is a gift to all of Eric's family. And that's really an extraordinary thing," said Dr. Pomfret. 

Live liver transplants only account for about 4 percent of all liver transplants each year.  

So, it is important to consider signing-up to be an organ donor. 

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