When others were thinking about staying safe in March, Army Veteran Timothy Yablonski was thinking about staying alive.
After suffering for more than five years with liver cirrhosis, Yablonski received the gift of life – a portion of liver from his stepdaughter, Alyssa Last. The surgery took place in March when VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and UPMC partnered to perform VA’s first living-donor liver transplant.
“As soon as we found out he was able to receive a living-donor liver transplant, I wanted to help,” said Last. “I was the first one who applied and was evaluated for it.”
Yablonski said Last’s generosity saved his life. “It made me feel incredible that my daughter wanted to support me. What my doctor told me after the transplant is my daughter kept me alive.”
The family believes the match and successful surgery were meant to be. They take personal strength from the connection between the date of the surgery and a Bible verse they value.
“The surgery was on March 16, 3-16, like John 3:16,” said Yablonski. “So, it was like a literal promise.”
Last herself had been involved in an accident a year before, requiring surgery and hospital care.
Not biological dad but a match
“There was no way I should have been able to go through the liver transplant surgery with the injuries I had. I was healthy enough to do so which was amazing. That and the fact that he’s not my biological dad and I matched him perfectly, it had to be.”
According to VA Pittsburgh transplant administrator Lindsey Herlinger, any Veteran eligible for VA care in the country who needs a transplant has the option of a living donor.
“It’s especially beneficial for those who would normally wait a long time for an organ,” said Herlinger. “It can shave years off the wait and free up a liver from the deceased donors list.”
The family returned to Pittsburgh for follow-up care in late June. They proudly wore matching shirts signed by their care teams and bearing unique phrases. Yablonski’s shirt reads “I now carry a piece of my daughter (A-frame) with me where ever I go. 3:16 2020,” and Last’s shirt reads “My dad has always been one of my heroes, now I am one of his. 3:16 2020.”
A first for VA
Yablonski’s living-donor transplant surgery is the first for VA. VA Pittsburgh is one of 13 VA transplant centers, performing in-house liver, kidney and living-donor kidney transplants. It is the only VA hospital accepting referrals for both living-donor liver transplants and small bowel transplants.
“It’s important to offer this to all Veterans. Not just here in Pittsburgh, but to all Veterans across the country,” said Dr. Abhinav Humar, chief of transplantation at UPMC and one of the surgeons who helped with Yablonski’s transplant. “This case was really special because it allowed us to partner with our VA colleagues and offer this life saving procedure to a segment of the population who didn’t previously have this available.”
“It’s incredible being a Veteran and being the first one,” said Yablonski. “It was so good to be supported through the whole process, and God willing, I made it all the way through the end and got a liver from my daughter. And just to go on with life, I’m 54 years old and it’s nice to be able to complete my 20 or 30 years, whatever I have left.”
Yablonski and Last said they’ve always been close, but the surgery bonded them.
“You do what you can for the people you love,” said Last.
All Veterans enrolled for VA health care are eligible for consideration for transplant services. If you are interested in these services, talk with your primary care provider about a referral.
Hope Nelson is a public affairs specialist with the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.