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A Gift from Grandma: Kourtney's Story

KourtneyJust mention a child’s name to her grandma or grandpa, and you’re sure to get smiles, photos and countless stories. But Selma Wilham has a story that tops them all. When her granddaughter Kourtney was 7 months old, Selma loved her so much that she gave her a part of her liver.

“Kourtney had jaundice,” says her mom, Kathy Wilham of Mt. Pulaski, Illinois. “We knew it was fairly common in newborns, so we didn’t think it was anything serious. However, when she was three weeks old, our pediatrician discovered that her liver was enlarged, and sent us straight down to St. Louis Children’s Hospital.”

After some tests, Kourtney was diagnosed with biliary atresia. “Tubes inside and outside the liver, called bile ducts, normally allow a liquid produced by the liver, called bile, to drain into the intestines and kidneys,” says Michelle Nadler, St. Louis Children’s Hospital Pediatric Liver Transplant Nurse Practitioner. “In biliary atresia, bile ducts that are located inside or outside the liver are blocked. When the bile is unable to leave the liver through the bile ducts, the liver becomes damaged, and many vital body functions are affected. It is the most common cause of liver transplantation in children living in the US.”

“At first, they tried a Kasai procedure to postpone—or in rare cases prevent—the need for a liver transplant,” says Kathy. “It quickly became clear that this was not working for Kourtney, and she would need a new liver.”

That’s when Kourtney’s then 62-year -old grandmother stepped up to be a potential liver donor. “I was not a match, and they did not want to consider my husband, Kevin, either,” says Kathy. “My mother-in-law has the same blood type as Kourtney, and after some tests, she came back as a suitable donor. She was so healthy. Her test results were like those of a 40-year-old.”

Before the transplant, baby Kourtney was struggling to thrive. “She threw up every day, she barely ate, and was very weak and lethargic,” says Kathy. “She was 8 pounds two ounces at birth and weighed just 11 pounds seven months later.”

On June 28, 1999, Kourtney and her grandmother had surgery in adjacent operating rooms. Selma’s lasted eight hours and Kourtney’s lasted ten. “Kourtney immediately began to look better. The first thing Kevin and I noticed was the color of her eyes—they weren’t yellow anymore. She also had energy for the Selma and Kourtneyfirst time ever. We were thrilled when the nurses teasingly referred to her as ‘ornery’ because she was moving around so much. Before her surgery, she could barely lift her arms—she had been as weak as a newborn for seven months.”

Selma and Kourtney both bounced back to good health and returned to their homes in Mt. Pulaski. Today, 12-year-old Kourtney and her older sister Kelsey enjoy a busy life on their family’s farm. “I love to play with the animals. We have cows, cats and dogs. I also like to ride my bike, swim and play volleyball.”

While Kourtney says she doesn’t think about her liver transplant very often, she has thanked her grandmother for giving her a such a special gift. “Of course we have thanked Selma,” says Kathy. “But thank you doesn’t really do it justice. We are just so grateful to her, and to everyone at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, for helping Kourtney thrive and grow. We can’t say enough about what they have done for us.”

 

Pediatric Liver Care and Transplant Center