As fate would have it, Debbie Laidler and Kayla Kutz had known each other for years, not as close friends but as soccer moms whose kids went through school together in Pittsburg, Kan.
As fate would have it, Debbie’s daughter, Katie, and Kayla’s son, Koy, were dating.
As fate would have it, Kayla, 42, suffered a severe stroke in August, followed less than two weeks ago by complications that left her brain dead.
And as fate would have it, Debbie, 55, diagnosed with liver cancer, was on the transplant list at the University of Kansas Hospital. She was so far down on the list, she could have been waiting into next summer.
Thanks to Kayla’s family, and her gift of a vital organ, Debbie didn’t have to.
As fate and fortune and the good will of neighbors and the skills of surgeons conspired, Debbie Laidler received Kayla Kutz’s healthy liver in a transplant operation that went swiftly and smoothly on Nov. 11.
Debbie made such quick progress that she was back home in less than a week. She and husband Tom, their four children and her mother will be celebrating a special Thanksgiving today.
“I’m blessed, so very blessed,” Debbie said last week as she prepared to leave KU Hospital. “In my heart, it’s very hard, the idea of someone giving their life for me. When it’s this close to home, it really adds to it.”
Doctors at KU Hospital say it’s extremely rare that a liver patient receives a “directed” donation the way Debbie did of an organ from someone they knew.
Usually, it’s random chance who receives a donor’s liver, said Timothy Schmitt, who with Sean Kumer performed the surgery. “The majority of the time you don’t get to choose. But in this case, the donor’s family knew the recipient and wanted to donate their mother’s liver.”
Organ donation rates in general are much higher in the Midwest than on either coast, said Richard Gilroy, medical director of liver transplantation at KU Hospital. That means liver patients in the Kansas City area often have a shorter wait for a transplant and get the organ while they are healthy enough to ensure a full recovery. Gilroy expects about 150 patients to be on KU’s liver transplant list by the end of the year; next year, the hospital may perform more than 100 transplants.
“That’s all related to the community,” Gilroy said. “The community here is more open to donating and less suspicious of the donor process.”
And when people feel close to others in need, they’re more likely to donate. “When there’s more awareness, a community makes a greater sacrifice,” Gilroy said.
The children of Debbie Laidler and Kayla Kutz grew up together, from the same pre-school to high school. The two women never did anything together socially. But Debbie would see Kayla regularly at the IGA, where Kayla had a weekend job in the deli department.
“She was very sweet,” Debbie said. “One thing I can always remember about Kayla was her smile.”
“That smile was infectious. Absolutely, it was infectious,” said Kayla’s mother, Becky Rogers. “She took everything in stride.”
Even after the stroke that put her in a wheelchair, Kayla kept her sense of humor, able to laugh when her disability caused her to spill things in the kitchen.
“She tried to do everything, just all in good nature,” her mother said.
But a few weeks ago, Kayla, 42, began to have a hard time breathing, apparently from scar tissue in her trachea, where doctors had inserted a breathing tube after her stroke. On Nov. 6, she stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest. She was resuscitated and taken to KU Hospital, but her brain had been starved of oxygen for too long.
The following Saturday, a KU nurse met with her family to consider organ donation.
“She had always said that would be her plan,” said Kayla’s mother, who herself received a life-saving new liver at KU Hospital in 2005. “I had heard that from the word go. It was on her driver’s license.”
That her own mother was alive because someone had donated their liver only added to Kayla’s conviction.
“I think that instilled in her what miracles can happen,” Becky Rogers said.
During the meeting with the nurse, “Koy out of the blue spoke up and said, ‘My girlfriend’s mother needs a liver,’ ” Rogers said. “We didn’t know the condition she was in.”
Koy called Katie that day to ask about her mother’s blood type and who her doctors were. He said his family wanted Debbie to have his mother’s liver.
Just after midnight, Debbie got the call from KU. “We have a donor,” a sweet, small voice told her.
Debbie wanted to know if it was “the local woman.” That information isn’t usually given, but Debbie found out.
“It was very overwhelming, like I couldn’t believe it. It was the farthest thing from my mind. She had children and I had children,” Debbie said. “There’s no way this is going to be.”
Debbie showered and dressed. She and Tom got to the hospital by 3 a.m. At 6 p.m., she was in the operating room. The liver Kayla had given her was pink and healthy.
“My doctor said it was like winning the lottery,” Debbie said.
“But the more Tom and I talk about it, fate has really been thrown into the equation.”