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Laura Starin is an Army Reservist who served in Afghanistan. Used to going to battle, nothing would prepare her for the fight she and her husband, Kurtis, would face.
Their infant son, Harvey, needed a life-saving liver transplant.
Harvey was born in Columbus, Ohio in February 2016. He was born with jaundice but otherwise healthy. Within a week, the 9-pound, 3-ounce baby was “normal and pink.”
Things seemed fine until he began spitting up and struggling with pain. At six weeks, his stools were turning minty green.
A bilirubin test and liver panel found he had biliary atresia, a rare and incurable disease of the liver and bile ducts.
Right away, doctors in Columbus performed a Kasai procedure to open a duct so bile could drain from Harvey’s liver. Unfortunately, this was unsuccessful.
Doctors told Laura and Kurtis a liver transplant would be Harvey's only chance of survival.
“We cried a lot that first weekend, but being in the military we just sucked it up and kept going,” says Laura.
Harvey’s gastroenterologist urged the Starins to choose Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. With both a college sorority sister and her family living in nearby Monroeville, Laura felt they would have a strong support network.
After weighing a few other options, the Starins chose the Liver Transplant Program at Children’s Hospital. Harvey's care team placed him on the liver transplant list, but he faced a long wait for a deceased donor organ.
A living-donor liver transplant would save time by giving Harvey a piece of a healthy person’s liver, since it can regenerate.
In June, 4-month-old Harvey and his parents traveled to Pittsburgh for an extensive liver transplant evaluation at Children’s Hospital. Laura and Kurtis both had testing to see if they could be donors, but neither was a match.
Still waiting for a liver, Harvey went home with his parents and older sister, Alice. However, upon his return home to Columbus, his condition got worse and he ended up in the hospital again.
As summer was dragging on and Harvey’s health was failing, doctors encouraged the Starins to publicize the need for a living donor.
“We’re really private and we didn’t want to share our child’s life with strangers,” Laura says. “But we had to do something, since neither of us was an ideal donor.”
They started a Facebook page for Harvey and sent out emails. A dozen people quickly volunteered to undergo screening, including Lara Stover — the younger sister of Laura’s close Army friend.
Lara, 26, of Columbus, was a recovery room nurse who visited Harvey regularly while his parents worked.
“It was heartbreaking. He had tubes sticking out everywhere and his skin was so yellow,” says Lara.
“He was the sweetest baby with these big brown eyes. I just knew I was supposed to do it and everything was going to be fine.”
Being young, healthy, and a universal blood donor, Lara thought she was a great fit. With her medical training, she felt fully informed and ready to donate part of her liver.
After undergoing screening and evaluation, Lara wrote the transplant team a note pleading with them to choose her.
“Somebody’s got to help him,” she wrote.
Learning that she was a perfect match, Lara went to the hospital with a gift for Harvey. Her mother made a liver-shaped pillow named “Larry.”
Two days before his transplant, an ambulance transported 7-month-old Harvey back to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.
“He was dying,” says Laura. “He was experiencing end-stage liver disease.”
On Sept. 22, 2016, Harvey and Lara both had a successful living-donor liver transplant. When she woke up in recovery at UPMC Montefiore, Lara right away asked about Harvey.
Lara's family, who went over to Children’s after her surgery to be with the Starins, sent updates by text. When she heard Harvey was out of surgery and doing well, she cried.
“I was so happy,” says Lara. “I was so overwhelmed and relieved.”
Lara donated 25 percent of her liver and was in the hospital for five days. As soon as she got out, she went to Children’s to visit Harvey.
“I’m the liver Mommy,” she told the nurses.
Within five weeks, she was back at work and training for a half marathon. In May, she completed the 5K Komen Race for the Cure in Columbus.
Almost one year after surgery, Harvey is thriving. He’s quickly making strides with rolling, sitting, and eating.
“He’s eating us out of house and home!” laughs Laura.
“We will forever be indebted to Lara. She’ll always be part of our family,” says Laura, who still marvels at her selfless act.
“She didn’t have to be part of this at all. She gave Harvey a future and the chance to grow old. She gave us back our family.”
Lara, who now speaks to potential donors, says she still finds it hard to believe Harvey is alive because of her.
“I tell people it’s a brave thing to do, but it’s honestly not that hard. And it’s well worth it to see someone thrive after having it done.”
Learn about becoming a living donor for a child on the liver transplant waiting list.
Children's Hospital's main campus is located in the Lawrenceville neighborhood. Our main hospital address is:
Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
One Children’s Hospital Way
4401 Penn Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15224
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