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Love Thy Neighbor: Donating a Second Chance

Rachelle Jeffers and Allen ‘Bud’ Mitchell went to church together but they weren’t close. That changed when she found out he would die unless he found a liver donor. That’s how Jeffers became one of a growing number of living liver donors.



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Rachelle Jeffers and Allen “Bud” Mitchell 
 

It’s one thing to take a cup of sugar from a neighbor. It’s quite another to take half her liver.

But for Allen “Bud” Mitchell, 79, it was either find a living donor — or die from liver failure. A retired Marine and military recruiter who had always stayed fit, Mitchell was shocked when he was diagnosed with non-alcoholic cirrhosis in 2016. He had little hope of surviving long enough to rise to the top of the waiting list for a liver from a deceased donor.

His wife, Ruth, spread the word all around their community in Altoona, but time and again, the couple struck out. Their friends were too old, and even their son, John, was just a few months over the 55-year age cutoff. Others were completely baffled by the idea of giving up half an organ. A kidney was one thing, they would say, knowing they had one to spare, but a liver? Even when they learned their liver would regenerate, it still seemed like a scary idea.

On a Sunday morning in May 2017, Bud was sitting in the back pew at the Fourth Street Church of God in Altoona after the service, thinking how his health had deteriorated from someone who had zoomed down the steepest slopes at Blue Knob mountain on a bodyboard. Now his abdomen was so bloated with excess fluid that he couldn’t bend over to tie his shoes.
 


Bud and Ruth Mitchell 
 

As Bud pondered his mortality, Ruth was mingling in the sanctuary and ran into Rachelle Jeffers, 33, a fellow choir member. Ruth burst into tears as she talked about her husband’s failing liver and their desperate need for a donor.

Rachelle knew Ruth was merely venting, but a voice in her head was telling her to “offer” — as in, offer to give up part of her liver. But instead of pushing away the thought as a crazy whim, as many people might, she took it as a sign from God. 

Rachelle turned to Bud, saying, “I’m your person.” She told him she was going to get tested to see if she was a match.

He stared incredulously at the young woman. The Mitchells knew Rachelle from church, but they hadn’t socialized much. “Why?” he thought to himself.  Why would a young woman who had her life ahead of her take that risk for him? 

On the drive home, Rachelle told her husband, “I may or may not have offered my liver today.” He stared at her. When she explained that she wanted to be a living donor to help save the life of another church member, he said he understood. 
 


Dr. Abhi Humar, chief of the UPMC Division of Transplantation
 

Her mother, understandably protective, expressed her worries with her daughter, but Rachelle asked her not to share those concerns any more with her before surgery. She only wanted positive thoughts. 

Rachelle underwent testing at UPMC, and she was deemed a good match, based on her A-negative blood that matched Bud’s, the configuration of her liver and the fact that she was young and fit. Elated by the news, she called Bud. They both choked up on the phone. 
 
As he prepared for the nine-hour operation, Bud was racked with worries about risks to a donor 44 years younger. “What if she gets sick or dies?” he asked his wife. “Am I worth it?”
Bud wasn’t sure if he could ever be as selfless as Rachelle. “If someone asked me to do this, and I wasn’t their brother or sister, would I do it? I honestly couldn’t say yes.” He called and gave her an out. “You don’t have to do this.” She never wavered. 

Just a few weeks later on June 1, 2017, the double surgery took place at UPMC Montefiore Hospital. Rachelle was calm, but Bud was nervous about both of their surgeries as they were wheeled in to the operating rooms. While one team of surgeons took out 47 percent of Rachelle’s liver, Bud’s surgeons removed his diseased tissue. As soon as the healthy lobe was attached, Bud was on his way to his second chance at life with a fully functioning liver.

At the time of his surgery, the 77-year-old was the oldest person to undergo a living-donor liver transplant at UPMC, the nation’s leader in the procedure.
 

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