Margaret Stegall stared at the Facebook post. She had never seen the person in the photo before. “Janet . . . is in desperate need of a liver transplant,” the post began. The caption described the woman’s decline from a healthy 19-year-old to someone at times crippled with disease. Stegall read to the end of the paragraph: “A qualified live donor with blood type O positive or negative would only need to donate a small portion of his/her liver. Would you prayerfully consider donating?”
As a teenager, doctors diagnosed Janet Pierce Thorin with an autoimmune disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC). PSC inflames and scars the liver ducts. The damage prevents the transport of fats and other nutrients to the body’s organs. PSC turned Thorin’s skin yellow and made it itch horribly. She was fatigued nearly all the time and lost a dangerous amount of weight.
Stegall and Thorin didn’t know each other, although they had attended the same Christian college, eight years apart. They would later discover many ties—a sibling at summer camp, friends who attended the same church—connecting them. None was stronger than being part of the family of God.
“I couldn’t just hit ‘like’ and go on about my day,” 25-year-old Stegall says of the June 29, 2020, post on the Bob Jones University alumni page. “I couldn’t get away from the feeling I was supposed to help.”
Stegall knew she was type O+. She knew that type Os can give blood to the other types—but can accept blood only from other Os. What Stegall didn’t realize was that in the world of organ donation, that makes getting O organs extra difficult.
As far back as 2004, Thorin knew she would eventually require a transplant. Her disease was making her sicker and sicker. Her family had checked relatives for a match but come up empty. Transplant coordinators say people needing organs can’t imagine anyone other than family would be willing to donate an organ.
Thorin’s doctors kept saying, “You need a liver.” Her healthcare team encouraged her to reach out on social media.
How do you even request such a thing? wondered Dave Thorin, Janet’s husband. It seemed like an impossibly big request. The Thorins’ pastor’s wife eventually made the plea that Stegall saw last summer. Her post included an email address. Before the day was out, Stegall had sent a message: “I’m willing to be tested.”
Janet Thorin’s mother, Kaylene Pierce, fielded numerous emails after the Facebook post requesting a live liver donor. People offered to pray and pass the word along. A surprising number volunteered to be tested for transplant. “The outpouring of love,” Pierce says, “was overwhelming.” She answered each, including Stegall’s, by sending them information for the University of Colorado Health Transplant Center in Denver, Colorado.
On New Year’s Eve, Stegall received a call. Other volunteers had been eliminated one by one: no match for Thorin. Stegall had moved to top of the list for donating part of her liver.
On January 10, Stegall flew from South Carolina to Denver for testing. She met with doctors. Almost every person want to know: Why volunteer for such a surgery—for a stranger? It was something she’d thought a lot about. She struggles to put the reason into words. “My pastor had been preaching about listening for God’s voice,” she says. “I knew God was telling me to ‘love my neighbor as myself’ in this way.”
The human body is a miraculous God-created machine. It has 78 main organs, five of which are vital. The liver is one such organ. Each liver contains eight segments. Remarkably, each segment has its own veins, arteries, and bile ducts. It is also one of two human organs known to be capable of regenerating. The other is skin. As doctors met with Stegall about donation, she says “the phrase ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ came to mind repeatedly.”
The most common type of liver donation comes from a cadaver, the body of a deceased person. In just four percent of liver transplants, a live donor gives part of a liver. Often, patients became too ill to withstand such a serious surgery before a liver match becomes available.
To be a match, a donor must have the right blood type and liver anatomy (including size and structure) that meet the needs of the recipient.
Stegall met with Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret, a top liver surgeon. Pomfret has performed more than 400 live liver transplants. She told Stegall that what she was signing up for was the most dangerous elective surgery of all. The incision would be longer than a ruler—straight down the middle of her abdomen. Pomfret recounted various scenarios, including pain, infection, blockages, . . . even death. Given the risk and the fact that Stegall didn’t know Thorin, she called Stegall’s visit to her office “extraordinary.”
A week after testing, Stegall got word: She was a match for Thorin. She would need to stay in the hospital for a week and in the area three weeks after the surgery for observation. Each person Stegall met with told her she could change her mind right up to the moment of surgery. “Backing out never crossed my mind,” Stegall says.
The transplant surgery lasted about five hours. Pomfret removed nearly 60% of Stegall’s liver. Stegall stayed in post-op for nearly the same amount of time. Thorin’s surgery was even more complex. Doctors had to reconfigure one of her arteries to match an anomaly in one of Stegall’s.
Right away, Stegall’s liver began working and growing inside Thorin. The first night after surgery, Dave Thorin says his wife’s skin began returning to a normal color. The next night, her itching began to subside. Her mother says, “She got the first night of sleep in many years.”
During that first week, Thorin’s body began to reject the foreign object inside her. Doctors told Dave that “the early and strong rejection is expected in someone as young as Janet.” Doctors are finding the right medicine to help her body accept it. It will be a long process of healing and regeneration.
Someday, Thorin’s PSC may return. If that happens, the disease would start over, so her symptoms would be as mild as they were at the beginning of her diagnosis. Dave calls his wife “a fighter” but adds, “I put this in God’s hands a long time ago.”
Stegall is consuming lots of protein and fluids to help her liver regenerate. She’s taking walks to regain strength and slowly trying to stretch her torso to keep her long stomach scar pliable. What’s left of her liver should be back to normal in about 12-14 weeks. The scar will be there forever—a reminder of her sacrifice.
As she prepared for surgery, Stegall made a portion of a Puritan prayer her cellphone wallpaper: “I rejoice to think that all things are at Thy disposal, and it delights me to leave them there.”
Loving. Listening. Leaving all to Jesus. Her life, she says, was never her own.