Janet White Larson was on a flight to Louisiana to donate a kidney to her ailing younger sister.
But what her sister Debbie, 41, actually needed desperately was a liver transplant. In the meantime, though, doctors believed a kidney transplant might buy Debbie some time to live, as the massive doses of antibiotics she was taking were destroying her kidneys.
Debbie had been waiting for a liver for several months, and "would probably have to wait anywhere from six to 18 months longer," according to Dr. Philip Boudreaux, her surgeon and liver specialist. "So it was unlikely that we would be finding a liver for her because I didn't think she would be alive six to 18 months longer."
Larson, 47, pulled out some medical documents and began to read up on the process she would go through in giving her sister a kidney. "I wanted to be able to ask educated questions of the doctors," she says.
A Life-Saving Coincidence
Sitting next to Larson on Northwest Airlines flight 1815 was 43-year-old Allen Van Meter, a Jacksonville businessman who was en route to Kentucky to comfort relatives, as they were soon to take his nephew, Michael Gibson, off life support. Gibson, 25, had accidentally shot himself in the head with what he thought was an unloaded gun.
Van Meter had planned to keep to himself on the plane ride, preparing for the difficult task of helping his family take Gibson off life support. But when Van Meter saw a woman studying medical drawings, he couldn't help but to ask if she was a doctor. Larson explained she was on her way to donate a kidney to her sister — but that what her sister really needed was a liver.
"I felt the presence of God come over me," recalls Van Meter. "I tapped her on the shoulder and I said, "Well, how about Deborah getting Michael's liver?'" Just the night before, Gibson's family had made the decision to donate his organs.
At first Larson was skeptical. She knew that accepting an organ wasn't so simple, as her sister had already rejected a liver from a transplant she'd had three years ago. Once a patient reached the top of a state-regulated waiting list, blood types had to match, tissue needed to be compatible and organ size was a factor.
But moments later and thousands of feet in the air, the two were making calls from the airplane phone to assess the probability of donating Gibson's liver to White.
Logistics of a Miracle
Larson's first call was to the transplant floor in New Orleans at Memorial Medical Center.
"I said, "This is not a prank phone call,'" says Larson. ""There's a man sitting next to me on the plane who has just lost his nephew … They have him on life support. And what we want to know is if we can direct his liver to my sister."
Timing would be critical. The two patients were in different states. Doctors were concerned that Gibson's liver would survive only another 10 hours, and it still needed to be removed, preserved in ice and transported more than 1000 miles.
Van Meter called the hospital in Missouri, where a nurse told him they were unhooking his nephew at that very moment.
"I said, "This is of God,'" Van Meter recalls telling the nurse. "She set down the phone and it was like three or four minutes later she came back and she said, "I've just stopped it.' Just like that."
Another potential setback was transporting the liver from Missouri to Louisiana, but White's hospital actually offered to charter a plane. As for the obstacle of the waiting list for an organ donation, White was able to avoid waiting any longer because of a program called "directed donation," whereby the family of a donor can decide who receives a particular organ.
Though there was still concern that Gibson, who was 50 pounds heavier and much taller than White, would not be a match for White, the logistics were finally in place.
At 11:30 that night, just 16 hours after her sister had boarded flight 1815 and sat next to Van Meter, Deborah was rolled into surgery. And by 8 a.m. the next day, her new liver appeared to be functioning.
"It was a series of miracles that led up to a huge miracle," says Deborah. "A life-saving miracle. The ultimate gift, priceless."