Sawyer’s Fighting Chance: His Own Father

In fall 2023, when Baby Sawyer was only a few weeks old, his mom, Caroline, and dad, Basil, became concerned over some unexpected symptoms he was experiencing that didn’t seem “normal” to these first-time parents. An extremely enlarged belly, jaundice eyes, poor sleep, digestive issues and repeat rejection of several types of formula landed the family in their pediatrician’s office 13 times by the time Sawyer was 2 months old.

“I knew something was wrong. It was a really rough experience,” Caroline said. “Everyone talks about postpartum being difficult, but this was a whole other level. There was a different anxiety there that I didn’t see other new moms having.”

After weeks of doctor visits but no clear answer, the Zager’s got in to see a specialist who determined that Sawyer’s symptoms were indicative of a serious liver issue. Caroline and Basil never would have guessed that at 2 months old their first and only child would be in Stage 4 liver failure. It was a shocking and scary time for the family, and the only thing that gave them a glimmer of hope was transferring to care at Lurie Children’s.

“They seemed to know what to look for, like maybe they had seen something like this before,” Caroline said. “They were working with us; we were a team. Everyone was trying to save Sawyer. It felt like we came to the right place.”

While it took time for the care team to figure out the extent of what Sawyer was going through and would need, the Zagers felt confident in Lurie Children’s ability to ultimately save his life.

Come early 2024, while questions remained around his exact diagnosis, it became clear that 5-month-old Sawyer’s best treatment option would be a liver transplant.

As many know, the tricky part about the transplant list is that families never know when they’ll get that highly anticipated call. It could be months in some cases, and fear and anxiety were rising for Caroline and Basil.

“We knew that Sawyer would need a transplant well before he was one year old or that we probably wouldn’t be celebrating that birthday.”

After a few attempts to get him a higher placement on the list, the Zagers began considering other donor options. Living liver donors must meet certain age and health criteria, as well as have the same or compatible blood type as the recipient, and testing is extensive. Unfortunately, it turned out that Caroline was not a candidate.

Basil’s tests, on the other hand, came back as a 100% match for Sawyer. The next step was an easy decision – he’d be his son’s life-saving donor. It was an emotional and overwhelming realization.

“When we first found out that I was a perfect match, I was overcome with emotion. I shed tears of happiness as I held him, knowing he would have a chance to live a normal life and have a normal childhood. There was a sense of relief,” Basil said. “The feeling of joy and happiness was indescribable. The left lobe of my liver was the perfect size for Sawyer, and the doctors told us it was like it was meant to be. I’d do it a million times over again if I had to.”

It was a choice that saved his family and meant everything to them.

“Once Basil found out he was a match, he worked out harder and prepared his body the best he could for a successful transplant and the chance to see Sawyer grow up,” Caroline said. “He was determined. Not only is Basil a great dad, he’s our superhero!”

An Outstanding Outcome 

While Caroline had concerns over both members of her “little family” going into surgery, she is so grateful to the expert teams at Lurie Children’s and Northwestern Memorial who executed them seamlessly in March. The transplant was exactly what Sawyer needed to turn a corner and finally begin progressing. Today, both dad and son are back at home recovering remarkably. The portion of Basil’s liver that was donated will grow with Sawyer as he grows, and the Zagers say there is a “night-and-day” difference in Sawyer with his new, functioning liver.

“I’m telling you he’s a fighter, he is resilient,” Caroline said. “When everything started, Sawyer’s bilirubin [bile pigment] was at a 19, and two days post-transplant he was down to a 3. That was unheard of.”

The parents are cherishing every little milestone Sawyer is now able to reach like sitting up on his own, learning to crawl and eating solids. They are not only looking forward to Father’s Day this year but celebrating his first birthday in September – something they weren’t able to imagine six months ago.

“We’re finally seeing him feel good and his personality is just exploding. He’s healthy, he’s happy, he’s so smiley. It’s the best feeling in the world,” Basil said.

The Zager’s community rallied around them during these challenging months. Family and friends raised nearly $40,000 to support their medical costs and Basil’s colleagues donated PTO to him so that he’d have adequate time to recover from this major surgery and be with his family.

Lurie Children’s eventually diagnosed Sawyer with biliary atresia, a rare disease where the bile ducts are blocked, causing bile to build up in the liver and damage it, but Sawyer’s exact type was something they hadn’t seen before. His liver is now being studied in research clinics across the country.

“If there is one thing I could say to anyone thinking about donating an organ, it would be ‘do it,’” Basil said. “To be able to save another person’s life and especially your own child, it’s the best, most fulfilling feeling.”

For more information about the process of becoming a living liver donor, visit Living-Donor Liver Transplant | Lurie Children's (luriechildrens.org).

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