WESTMINSTER, Colo. — For many of us, the season of giving comes to a close with the end of the year. However, organ donation is a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Grace and Olivia Koontz are sisters who grew up in Westminster. Just days before Grace's first birthday, she was diagnosed with leukemia.
“Grace has had numerous health complications, just based on having really strong chemotherapy and radiation at such a young age that affected basically every system," her sister Olivia explained. “We've gotten very used to Grace being in and out of the hospital and seeing lots of specialists, but that certainly doesn't make it any easier.”
In 2022, the family learned Grace needed a liver transplant.
“Her liver is like a ticking time bomb, waiting for another bleed to pop up. And that was the reason she needed to have a liver transplant," Olivia said. “When you're watching Grace go through all of these things, it feels really helpless."
Olivia felt the liver transplant was a chance to help her sister, in a way she had never been able to do in the past. Olivia decided to go through the process of becoming a living liver donor.
“It didn't feel like a huge decision, it was just kind of something that I felt called to do," Olivia explained. “Especially for my sister, it just seemed like a no-brainer to at least try to see if I could be a match and somebody that could donate to her.”
After going through the majority of the process to become a donor, Olivia said doctors determined her liver would not work well for her sister, Grace.
“It was a bundle of emotions, and after I had kind of sat in those tough feelings for a little while, I was like, I don't want to be sad anymore," said Olivia. “If I can't do this for Grace, is there any way that I could do this and take away this anxiety for a different family and for a different person?"
Olivia was working with doctors from the UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, and learned two babies at Children's Hospital Colorado were her blood type and in need of a liver. Olivia had part of her liver removed in March of 2022 for an anonymous transplant recipient.
“Why have somebody else wait, why have another family wait longer, if I could do it right now?" said Olivia. “I would do it again if I could, it was an incredible experience... It means everything to be able to know that part of me is doing its job for somebody else, far away.”
Grace received a liver transplant just a few months later, in June of 2022, from a former classmate.
Donors ensure every kid on liver transplant list will likely get one this year
Dr. Amy Feldman is the medical director of the Liver Transplant Program at Children's Hospital Colorado, which is fitting since her favorite organ is the liver.
"The liver is really special because it can regenerate. So, you can take a piece of liver out of a grown-up person like you and put it into a child, it will immediately start working in the child and within a couple of weeks it will be regrown back to a full size in both the donor and the recipient," explained Feldman. “I have the best job in the entire world. So, I meet children when they are in a really rough spot and their families are in a really rough spot... I get to help those families and those children to become well again, that's the amazing thing about liver transplant is that you put a new liver into a child and you give them a chance for a full happy, healthy, normal life.”
Feldman said there are never enough options for deceased donors to meet the number of people on transplant waitlists.
“Every year, unfortunately, because there simply aren't enough grafts, one in 10 infants and one in 20 older children pass away before a graft becomes available," said Feldman. “That results in 30 to 40 families who lose their child because a graft was not available.”
Living donors have the power to significantly help those who need a liver or kidney, Feldman said.
“We are the leader in the country for pediatric living donor liver transplant," said Feldman. “Because we offer living donations, we're able to bring our waitlist times way down. So for children, the national average for a liver is to wait about eight months. Here at Children's Hospital Colorado, our average wait time is two months.”
For anyone interested in becoming a liver or kidney donor, UCHealth has more information on how to begin the process on their website.
Olivia has detailed bits of her process as an organ donor through her blog, where she also posts poetry about the emotional journey she experienced.