Shauna McMillan was reading The Indiana Gazette on Facebook in May when she saw a story and photo about Peggy Caruso and her search for a live liver donor.
“It just kind of hit me all at one time that I needed to do something to help if I could,” Shauna said. “I could feel the love that family had for each other.”
Peggy, who lives in Blairsville, was in a battle for her life after being diagnosed with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, a disease that causes liver inflammation that can become worse and cause scarring of the liver, which leads to cirrhosis. Around Thanksgiving in 2016 during a trip with her husband, John, sons John Jr. and Matt, as well as their wives and children, Peggy began developing symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy, which occurs when high levels of poisons, including ammonia, build up and the liver is no longer capable of filtering the substances, which can cause serious complications.
“At that point in my life, I was very, very ill,” Peggy said. “I was having seizures constantly.”
Peggy said the seizures caused short-term memory loss. “There were times I would wake up and ask my husband who he was,” she said. “I always knew my boys, though.”
Liver transplant candidates are assessed through a Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score, which determines their priority on the transplant waiting list.
“While the transplant system works well for 80 percent of the people who need a liver, it doesn’t work for those with Mom’s condition,” John Jr. said. “Even though Mom would have died without a new liver, the MELD score, which is the number that determines how high on the transplant waiting list you are placed, doesn’t reflect how gravely sick people with nonalcoholic cirrhosis are. Her score was never high enough to get on the list for a deceased person’s liver.”
Peggy needed a living donor, someone willing to give her a portion of their own healthy liver. Family members weren’t able to donate, so they started looking for ways through the media to let others know about Peggy’s desperate need. That’s how the woman they refer to as an “angel” came into their lives.
Shauna, a mother of three who works at Conemaugh Health Systems and is a pre-med student at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, said she didn’t know much about this type of donation. “The whole living donor thing was brand new to me,” she said, “so I researched as much as I could online.” Before making the call to Peggy’s son, Shauna also checked with her employer to confirm that she could take a leave from her job.
To be considered as a donor, Shauna was evaluated at UPMC Thomas Starzl Transplant Center in Pittsburgh. “Labs are collected, a physical assessment for overall health was done to rule out obvious health issues preventing donation, and they do several types of imaging, including a chest X-ray, CT scan of the abdomen and an MRI,” she said. “An extensive psychological evaluation is also performed to rule out any possible issues that could arise or be worsened by organ donation. UPMC is amazing because they go so far over and above to make sure the physical and psychological health of both the recipient and donor are met.”
Peggy’s husband recalled their first meeting with Shauna when they were at the hospital for appointments.
“The doctors told us it was the donor’s choice whether or not she met the family,” John said, “so we didn’t know her yet. We were at the hospital for Peggy’s check-up and she wanted to watch a specific show while we waited, but the television in the room wasn’t working. We went to the next waiting room and asked the woman sitting there if she had the remote, which she said she didn’t, so I tried to figure out how to change the channel on the television.”
With the couple engaged in friendly bickering about the best way to get the television to work, Peggy turned to the woman and said, “What do you think of this guy?”
Shauna replied, “I’m your donor.”
“It was funny because I recognized them from the picture that was in the Gazette,” Shauna said.
“We were totally in shock,” John said. “We kept thanking her, and as we were leaving, one of the last things I said was, ‘You’re not going to back out, are you?’ and Shauna said, ‘No way.’”
Shauna has wanted to help people all of her life. “I wore a plastic stethoscope when I was little for years,” she said. She is the founder of Friendly Neighbors, a Facebook page with more than 2,000 followers that was created to connect those in need with those who wish to help. “It can be anything from helping an elderly neighbor by shoveling snow, to working with victims of domestic abuse or people who have lost everything because of a fire,” Shauna said.
After Shauna was approved as a donor, she and Peggy went through the transplant surgery in July. Shauna was released after six days, but experienced what she referred to as “minor complications,” which resulted in an additional four days of hospitalization. Peggy was discharged after 12 days, and said her doctors were “absolutely astounded” at her progress. “One of them said he’d never had anybody who just had a liver transplant and the first thing they wanted to do was brush their teeth, wash their face and put on makeup,” Peggy said. “I told him, ‘Honey, when you’re my age, you don’t want your husband to see you without it!’”
The Carusos are grateful for the outpouring of love and support they experienced during the past year, especially as a result of the newspaper article. “It got the attention of the person who ended up saving my mother’s life,” Matt said. “Shauna has one of those special gifts of serving and giving.”
“I’m so blessed to have Shauna come into my life,” Peggy said. Her husband agreed, saying, “Once the weather gets warmer, we’re planning on some get-togethers with Shauna, her fiance and their children. As far as we’re concerned, she’s part of the Caruso family.”
Matt said when the family members were in Blairsville last year for Christmas, his mom was convinced she didn’t have a lot of time left. “The rest of us were more optimistic, but she was just so tired and beat up by her condition that she didn’t have a lot of hope.” Peggy agreed, saying she prepared for the worst. “I wrote letters to my husband and boys telling them I loved them and wanted them to hold on to the memories and to each other.” When the Caruso family gets together this year during Christmas, Matt said the holiday will have special meaning. “There’s so much to be thankful for.”