Kirsty Wynn

Kirsty Wynn is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Special gift saves young niece's life

Aunt gives up part of her liver for girl's transplant in best gift of all

Twelve-month-old liver transplant patient Dylan Consolo with her donor and aunty, Fern Woolridge Hyett. Photo / Michael Craig
Twelve-month-old liver transplant patient Dylan Consolo with her donor and aunty, Fern Woolridge Hyett. Photo / Michael Craig

Dylan Consolo received the best Christmas present from her aunt this year - the gift of life.

The little girl, who also turned one on Christmas Day, had a liver transplant earlier in the month after her mum's younger sister volunteered to donate part of the vital organ to her sick niece.

In the three short weeks since her life-saving operation at Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital, the Wellington tot has thrived.

"Her skin is no longer yellow and the whites of her eyes are actually white," mum Emma Woolridge Hyett says.

"If it wasn't for the big scar on her stomach and my sister hobbling around I would not have thought she had an operation."

Emma and husband Eric Consolo first noticed something was wrong with their baby when unusual bruises started appearing on her body.

Dylan was eventually diagnosed with the rare condition of progressive familial intrahepatic cholestasis - or PFIC - which causes liver failure because bile cannot be removed from the organ.

After countless tests, scans and ultrasounds, the family were told Dylan needed a transplant. Meanwhile, she was fed through a tube and needed five doses of vitamins A, D, E and K each day.

"As soon as she heard Dylan needed a transplant, my sister Fern put her hand up and said she would be tested," Emma says.

Emma and Eric were also willing to donate but Eric wasn't a suitable candidate and if Emma had been the donor, she wouldn't have been able to breastfeed or care for Dylan and her older sister Lilla, 2, straight after the operation.

Fern says the decision to save her niece was an easy one.

"It wasn't a hard decision when you are talking about someone's life.

"Now I have a great excuse to have a nana nap in the afternoon," she laughs.

Like all live donors, Fern underwent medical tests and spoke to counsellors, surgeons and the anaesthetist to understand the gravity of the procedure.

During the six-hour operation, 20 per cent of Fern's liver was removed and transplanted into Dylan.

Emma says she feels huge gratitude to her sister, who put Dylan's health above her own and has put her career in law on hold until she has recovered.

"It was a huge thing for her to do; we were told the recovery for the donor was more painful than giving birth," Emma says.

The family have three months to recover in the hospital's liver transplant apartments and then Ronald McDonald House before heading home.

They say care from the hospital team made spending Dylan's first birthday and Christmas in hospital well worth it.

"We have been treated so well and cared for by an amazing team," Emma says. "Santa visited Dylan and Lilla in hospital - they got really spoiled."


Rules could soften for liver donations

New Zealanders are some of the least generous organ donors in the world - despite most saying they would be happy to donate.

Making family aware of your wishes to donate is the key, says Steve Munn, clinical director of liver transplant services at Starship.

The Auckland unit performs 40 liver transplants a year, a quarter of those on children and nearly half from a live donor.

Munn said more deceased donors were needed to shorten wait times, which can be fatal. Eight children are waiting for a liver at present.

"Dylan Consolo is a good example of someone who would have been dependent on a deceased donor if no one had been found in her family.

"We don't have enough deceased donors and it is important to know a child like Dylan can benefit."

Liver transplants in children have been performed in New Zealand for 10 years.

Before then patients had to travel to Brisbane and stay until an organ from a deceased donor became available. The wait could sometimes take a year, splitting families and costing up to $120,000 for the operation alone.

Since 2002, 85 sick New Zealand children have received a liver transplant.

At the moment liver donors have to be related to and have an emotional attachment to the recipient, but this could change.

"In New Zealand we can give kidneys like we give a pint of blood," Munn said.

"The donor is still taking a risk but it is not as high as with liver donation. We eventually might do this for livers."

- Herald on Sunday

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