A Transplant Recipient and Her Donor Share a Deep, Long-Standing Connection
Several years ago, Christine Rutigliano’s manicurist noticed that her customer’s eyes looked yellow—a sure sign of liver disease. Christine, a New York City native who lives near Albany, knew she needed to see a doctor but wasn’t sure where to go for diagnosis and treatment.
A childhood memory provided the answer.
Long ago, when she was 6 months old, a young doctor at New York Hospital—NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital’s predecessor—saved her life.
“My whole extended family made the trek from Queens to Manhattan,” says Chrissie (her longtime nickname). An attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian diagnosed the child with pneumonia, and after a brief hospital stay, she was cured.
Recalling that incident decades later, Chrissie knew exactly where to go to get the help she needed.
A recent emergency appendectomy followed by a bout of unaccustomed back pain pointed toward what ailed her. But when Dr. Robert Brown, Vincent Astor Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Weill Cornell Medicine, told her she’d need a liver transplant, she could barely take in what he was saying.
At the time, she was full of energy, able to function well at work, at home and in the community. She wasn’t sick. A liver transplant? That was for people with all-out liver failure; people who had run out of options, she thought.
In fact, Chrissie’s liver was failing. She was diagnosed with primary biliary cirrhosis. But she wasn’t sick enough to receive a liver from a deceased donor in a timely fashion. Her best option would be a living donor, Dr. Brown said.
A liver transplant from a living donor involves the surgical removal of a portion of the donor’s liver and its placement into the person whose liver is no longer viable. The donor’s liver grows back to its normal size, usually within a year.
To get adequate priority on the national registry list for a deceased donor’s liver, you need to be extremely ill, says Dr. Benjamin Samstein, Chief of Liver Transplantation and Hepatobiliary Surgery, Professor of Surgery and Surgical Director of the Living Donor Liver Transplant Program at Weill Cornell Medicine. “That makes sense, given the relative shortage of organs from deceased donors,” he explains. He seconded Dr. Brown’s recommendation: A living donor would be the best way to go.
“Who would be willing to donate a body part to me?” Chrissie wondered. No fewer than 8 family members volunteered for the task, but a non-blood relation leapfrogged over all of them. Her name is Paige Oberle.
Bonded through love and loss
“I didn’t think twice about donating part of my liver to Chrissie,” Paige says. “If someone important in your life needs your help, it’s totally worth it.”
Paige’s mother passed away when she was only 12 years old. Chrissie was Paige’s mom’s best friend.
After Paige lost her mom and Chrissie was forced to say goodbye to her dearest friend, the two became close, and over time their relationship blossomed. “Chrissie helped keep the memory of my mom alive. We’d talk about her a lot, but we also grew our own relationship.
“When people ask me about the unique bond I share with Chrissie, it’s impossible to explain,” Paige continues. “Each of us is part of the other’s family. My mom left us each other.”
This April, Paige got married. Of course, Chrissie was there at every step, helping her unofficial daughter plan the wedding and rejoicing in this major milestone in Paige’s life.
A multi-pronged process
“Transplant surgery is the centerpiece of a much larger process,” says Dr. Samstein.“We have a holistic way of looking at people, which is why our team includes experts across so many areas of care,” including:
- Rehabilitation medicine
- Social work
- Financial counseling
Chrissie and Paige interacted with the transplant team well before their respective procedures, which took place in June 2019. And as with all organ donors and recipients, the two were kept completely separate to avoid bias and protect their privacy.
Paige, a former pediatric nurse practitioner, says it was enlightening to be a patient for the first time in her life.
“Because of my professional background, I knew what I was getting myself into,” she says. “I also knew that my liver would grow back.”
However, that took a lot of energy. “We removed 1 to 2 pounds of Paige’s liver,” Dr. Samstein says. “Regrowing a liver causes significant fatigue, typically lasting for 3 months.” That time frame matched Paige’s experience precisely. She was in her mid-20s with no known health problems. She had every reason to believe that everything would go well. And it did.
“Thanks to my training, and to all the support I received at Weill Cornell, I was as mentally prepared as it’s possible to be,” she says. “But it was still hard afterwards. I needed a lot of help. Even taking a shower was a big deal.”
Still, Paige feels that she got off easy compared to Chrissie. Paige chose to become Chrissie’s donor, but Chrissie had no choice in the matter. “She’s on a lifelong journey,” Paige says. “It’s my honor to have been part of it.”
Living donors like Paige tend to be problem-solvers who leap into action when a loved one needs help, Dr. Samstein says. “They also have a high degree of empathy. They feel connected to others in a deeper way, and that motivates them to share what they have—in Paige’s case, a lot of life energy and a healthy liver—to enable others to live. We call that everyday heroism.”
Rejuvenation and renewal
As Chrissie was receiving her new liver, more than 30 people gathered in the waiting room—members of both Chrissie’s and Paige’s extended families. Her surgical team thought they were having a party!
“I felt great after surgery,” she says. “I was up and walking around in no time, and I was discharged 3 days earlier than expected.”
During their respective recoveries, Chrissie and Paige made regular dates to get together, share their experiences and bond as usual. And their relationship has grown even stronger since then.
“Through it all, my family has been extraordinary,” Chrissie says, from her sons, Joseph and Andrew, to her 2 stepchildren and her husband, who stepped into the role of cook and housekeeper without missing a beat. “He did an amazing job of taking care of me for 3 months,” after which she went back to work as a professional lobbyist.
“My hair is gorgeous now,” she grins. “After all, I have a 25-year-old liver!”
Chrissie takes 2 anti-rejection pills—one in the morning and one at night. These medications are her main tangible reminder of what she has been through.
Per Weill Cornell Medicine’s requirements, she also checks in with her transplant team once a year—mainly with Dr. Brown. Soon, though, she’ll mainly follow up with her primary care physician for routine check-ups to make sure she stays healthy.
The great new development in Chrissie’s life came when she decided to join the board of Donate Life New York State—a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing organ, eye and tissue donation in New York State. “The work is extremely rewarding. And it was my transplant that led me to it.”