Next-door neighbors and longtime pals now can claim a uniquely shared life experience: transplantation

Outside of Operating Room 12 at UW Medical Center, the surgical nurse is entering information about Jaime McClanahan Cuzick.

She asks a visitor, “What is her relation to the recipient?”

“Her friend.”

A quick double take, then a smile. 

Patient Kailyn McIrvin greets Jaime Cuzick, in doorway, the day before their surgeries.

That’s a typical reaction when people learn about Cuzick and her best friend, Kailyn McIrvin. They grew up side-by-side on farms in Shelton, Wash. When the nurse asked this question Oct. 14, surgical teams were already taking 60 percent of Cuzick’s liver to transplant it into her friend.

It was the Pacific Northwest’s first living-donor liver transplant between unrelated adults, according to the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Two surgical teams needed 15 hours to remove a portion of Cuzick’s liver, then remove McIrvin’s diseased liver in its entirety and transplant the donated tissue in McIrvin.
 
This journey for Cuzick, 33, and next-door neighbor McIrvin, 23, began 10 years ago when McIrvin was diagnosed with a rare disorder called ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency, or OTC deficiency. It affects how the liver breaks down proteins and metabolizes ammonia.

Since then, McIrvin has been to hospitalized countless times as the release of ammonia from her diseased liver into her bloodstream began to cause brain damage.
 

Drs. Martin Montenovo, left, and Jorge Reyes led the two procedures Oct. 14 at UW Medical Center.

 
After visiting a specialist in Washington, D.C., this year who suggested liver transplantation, she came to the UW Medical Center for evaluation and transplant listing. Yet despite the worsening illness, McIrvin was still low on the national transplant wait list. 

At that time, Dr. Martin Montenovo, a UW assistant professor of surgery,  told her she might make a good candidate for a living donor liver transplant.
 
Cuzick, who attended the meeting with McIrvin, perked up.
 
“I knew what I had to do,” Cuzick said. Once she received her husband’s support, Cuzick was determined to become McIrvin’s donor.
 
“I mean, how could I not?” she said.
 
The first nonrelated living-donor transplant involving adults was in Hong Kong in 1993. Now about 300 occur each year in the United States, the majority on the East Coast, said Montenovo, who led the partial removal of Cuzick’s liver.  

Jaime Cuzick, left, and Kailyn McIrvin share a moment the day before their surgeries.

 
 

The two friends “have demonstrated exceptional strength, fortitude and love in the face of adversity and disease,” said Dr. Jorge Reyes, UW professor of surgery and chief of transplant surgery at UW Medical Center. 
 
Cuzick was out of the hospital in about a week, ahead of McIrvin. Both livers should grow back to full size within a few weeks, doctors said.
 
“I’ve told her that she’s always been a pain in my neck,” Cuzick said, smiling as the two bantered like sisters the day before surgery. “Now she’ll just be a pain in my side.”

McIrvin is in awe of her friend, she said – but not surprised. “She’s just that kind of person.”