Saving Kareena: Sept. 11 Attacks Nearly Stopped Infant's Transplant

PHOTO: Kareena, as an infant with Dr. John Goss, and Kareena as a healthy 10-year-old today.
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It's the night of Sept. 10, 2001. A tiny and frail 6-month old Kareena lies dying of liver failure in a Houston hospital, with mom Kiran by her side. To live, Kareena needs a liver transplant within 12 to 48 hours.

Eight-hundred miles away in Nashville, Tenn. grieving parents lose their infant that same night. In a twist of fate, they decide to donate their baby's organs. Out of the darkness, a possible match for Kareena.

Anxiety and Worry

When asked about Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, 2001, Kiran answers somberly. "It was just a lot of anxiety and worry. Hoping and praying that we get to see what kind of girl she was going to become when she was older."

Would she get the chance to know what kind of young woman, even mother, her baby daughter would grow up to be? The fear played in her mind repeatedly, even in the early hours of Sept. 11, which seemed like any normal morning in Texas Children's Hospital, where she'd keep watch from a bed next to her daughter's.

"We woke up, did our routine, and were just waiting, waiting, waiting to hear some news, and then we did hear some news and there was a flurry of activity outside our room. We knew something was going on," Kiran says.

"And then they came in and told us that there was a possible donor...There was hope at least, and some kind of excitement, anxiety, that maybe it would be okay after all."

But they couldn't foresee the news breaking then that a commercial passenger plane had been hijacked and crashed intentionally into the World Trade Center.

"And then they came in and told us that there was a possible donor, " Kiran remembers, "And so it was 'wow, I can't believe that there's a possibility'- they were kind of uncertain because they still had to get more details. But there was hope at least, and so kind of excitement, anxiety that maybe it would be okay after all."

"And then of course Sept. 11 unfolded and it was a very, very difficult day," Kiran remembers. "Everyone thinks back to 9/11 and what we were hearing and seeing -- it was like the world was falling apart."

And there in the hospital, hundreds of miles from the crash sites, another life was in limbo: After the attacks, the government grounded all flights; how would the donor liver make its way from Nashville to Houston?

"I just couldn't believe it," Kiran says. "There's this chance of life for Kareena and then this incredible kind of backdrop to everything. I remember thinking, 'Well, it's just not meant to be.'"

Flights Grounded

But no one was ready to give up. On a typical day Tennessee Donor Services would have simply had a pilot charter a plane to fly the liver to Houston. With the flight ban in place, the situation became much more complex.

But Dr. Ravi Chari, the surgeon in Nashville who was removing the liver from the donor infant, didn't want to hear "no."

When interviewed in 2001 he stated simply, "If we didn't get this liver to this patient because of what the terrorists had done, the terrorists would in effect have killed someone else."

Dr. Chari had Donor Services contact the Nashville Airport traffic control to plead for any help in getting flight approval. But they, too, were under the same FAA restrictions. So Sherry Jensen, the manager at the Nashville Tower, had her team get on the phones and see what could be done.

Enter the National Guard.

With the clock ticking away, back at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville the liver was secured for transport, moved quickly to a waiting car, and driven directly to the Air National Guard base. Under an armed escort, it was loaded on the waiting C-130. Seven minutes later, the Air Guard was granted permission to fly.

As the country's air space went from friendly skies to a potential battlefield, a 38-ton cargo transport plane carried one precious piece of cargo: an 11-ounce baby's liver.

"And then I got a phone call from Dr. John Goss (Kareena's transplant doctor) just out of the blue. I think it was about 11:30 a.m. And he said, 'The organ's on its way.' It was just unbelievable. I remember the phone fell out of my hand and I just couldn't believe that it was actually going to happen even with everything that was going on. It was just incredible," Kiran remembers.

For two hours, as one of only a handful of planes permitted in the air that day, the cargo plane flew through eerily quiet skies, no one speaking for the first 30 minutes of the flight. Tech. Sgt. Tracy Hobbs, one of two flight nurses on the plane, reflects, "We didn't know if there were going to be more attacks going on while we were in the air." At 2:05pm, the plane touched down and the race to save a life continued.

It was a whirlwind of late afternoon activity prepping Kareena for surgery, and six hours later, she was resting with her new liver in the hospital's intensive care unit

Reflections

When asked about the day's events Kiran says, "I had no idea that there was all this activity going on behind the scenes and people were really fighting. They didn't want another life to be claimed. They really felt like they had some power over making this happen, and they weren't gonna take it lying down."

Ten years later, past the thick of the day's intensity, a decade of perspective leaves Kareena's mom with one word: Gratitude.

"Given all the horrible things that happened on that day," Kiran says, "I'm just thankful that people went so far and beyond for somebody they didn't know. That's always incredible to me. Everybody felt that they had it in their power to make a difference for just this one tiny little baby on that day. And they did, they did."

Kareena Today

Today, Kareena is a vibrant 5th grader. The 10-year-old is a proud spelling bee champ who's getting ready to play the viola this year. Her hobbies include reading, collecting playing cards from different cities and swimming, because, as she says, "I'm a Pisces!" Perhaps not supringly, she plans to be a doctor when she grows up.

"I'm trying to decide whether transplant or baby doctor, and I want to be both," she says.

She is thankful for her second chance at life.

"If that baby hadn't passed away, they probably would have had a nice life and stuff. And I feel very sorry for that baby 'cause that could have been me, too," she says.

Kiran is similarly thankful to the family that decided to donate their daughter's liver.

"There's not a day goes by when I don't think of the donor family. And I always think, you know, their child would have been about this old now and how they must be feeling...how they remember 9/11."

Kareena still goes back to Texas Children's Hospital every year for a head to toe look over. During a recent medical exam, she declared she's feeling fine. Her liver numbers have been perfect with no signs of rejection and doctors are very happy with the transplant.

Kareena understands what it took -- the hard work that happened years ago amid extraordinary obstacles -- to keep her alive.

"I know that two planes crashed into the Twin Towers and many people died. Many people lost their families and friends. I feel very thankful cause I could have been one of those innocent people," she says.

"The people who saved my life tried so hard," she says. "So in their honor I'm going to do the best I can and I'll always remember the people who saved my life."

Watch "Remembrance and Renewal: Ten Years After the 9/11 Attacks," a "20/20" special, Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.

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