Daughter saves mom's life twice by donating her liver, kidney

Eileen Harlin gave a kidney and part of her liver to her mother Julia Harlin.

January 23, 2024, 5:18 PM

When Julia Harlin's liver began failing several years ago as a result of a condition known as cirrhosis caused by nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, her only option for survival was to get a liver transplant.

Due to a long waiting list, she would need to wait months or years to find a donor with a matching blood type, as well as other medical characteristics -- and as a senior citizen, time wasn't exactly on her side.

"They basically told me, it would probably be at least five years, if not longer, before I would get the transplant," Julia Harlin, 71, of Frederick, Maryland, recalled during an interview with "Good Morning America."

Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, is a type of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in which fat builds up in your liver, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which notes that if a patient has NASH, they often experience inflammation and liver damage, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.

While nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD, can be improved with weight loss, and "can reduce fat, inflammation, and fibrosis in the liver," the NIDDK states, "no medicines have been approved to treat NAFLD or NASH."

"If NASH leads to cirrhosis, doctors can treat many complications of cirrhosis with medicines, minor medical procedures, and surgery. People with liver failure or liver cancer may need a liver transplant to restore health," the agency states.

Despite having five children of her own, Julia Harlin said she did not want any of them to become her donor "because then I would be worrying about them on top of worrying about myself."

PHOTO: Eileen Harlin (left) sitting next to her mother Julia Harlin (right).
Eileen Harlin (left) sitting next to her mother Julia Harlin (right).
Eileen Harlin

Without their mom's knowledge, however, Julia Harlin's daughter Eileen Harlin and her two other siblings applied to become living donors, which would reduce their mom's wait time, although it would require a major surgery.

The week of Mother's Day, Eileen Harlin received test results showing she was a match.

She said she decided to break the news to her parents on Mother's Day.

"I said, 'Hey, don't get mad. For the past few months, I've been getting tested to see if I'm a match. And I am, and I want to do it.' So they started crying," Eileen Harlin shared. "It was emotional for sure."

The liver transplant was carried out successfully on Aug. 16, 2022, at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, according to a press release from the hospital.

PHOTO: Eileen Harlin in a selfie with her mother Julia Harlin.
Eileen Harlin in a selfie with her mother Julia Harlin.
Eileen Harlin

Unfortunately, not long after the surgery, Julia Harlin's kidneys also began to fail as a result of a condition called hepatorenal syndrome, which is a "multiorgan condition of acute kidney injury seen in those with advanced liver disease," according to StatPearls, an online library published in the National Library of Medicine.

The condition required her to get a new kidney, her doctors said.

"I think we were all in shock," Eileen Harlin recalled.

Julia Harlin added, "I think I started crying, again, I like I couldn't believe I had to go through that again."

Despite the setback, Eileen Harlin was once again able to get tested as a living donor for her mom and was found to be a match.

A successful kidney transplant was eventually performed at the same hospital as the liver transplant, University of Maryland Medical Center, on Dec. 19, 2023.

A rare case

The double surgeries were a first for University of Maryland Medical Center, according to Daniel G. Maluf, M.D., the director of the transplant program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who was Julia Harlin's surgeon for both procedures.

Speaking with "GMA," Maluf said dual living-donor transplants are incredibly rare, and Eileen Harlin is only the 14th individual in the United States to donate a kidney and part of her liver to another person across two separate surgeries.

PHOTO: Eileen Harlin (on the right) gave a kidney and part of her liver to her mother, Julia Harlin.
Eileen Harlin (on the right) gave a kidney and part of her liver to her mother, Julia Harlin.
University of Maryland Medical Center.

"This is a case where the same donor donated to the same recipient two organs, or, you know, part of the liver and the kidney," he explained. "And it was done sequentially, not at the same time, but was done with some time in between the two donations."

Maluf said after the first surgery, he discussed the situation with the hospital's ethics committee, and given Eileen Harlin's stellar health record, the doctors decided to move forward with the second transplant.

Following the procedure, Maluf said, "The mom's kidney function recovered immediately. And both of them were home after two or three days post transplant."

"Julia is a wonderful patient, very appreciative," he added. "And obviously the hero of the story is Eileen, who came forward twice to help [her] mother."

PHOTO: Julia Harlin with some of her grandchildren.
Julia Harlin with some of her grandchildren.
Eileen Harlin.

Julia Harlin echoed Maluf's sentiments, gushing over her daughter while speaking with "GMA."

"She's very generous. She's very loving," she said. "She would do anything for anybody, really … if I call Eileen, it doesn't matter what time it is, she's in the car from Pennsylvania, and she's coming."

Eileen Harlin, meanwhile, praised the staff at UMMC for their help, calling them "wonderful," and adding that "they were there every step of the way."

"The doctors were great. They took care of us, they answered all our questions," she said.

She encouraged anyone thinking about donating their organs to "100%, without a doubt, do it."

"You don't even have to know the person ... and it can be anonymous," she said. "You don't do it for anything, [except] the fact that you can save someone's life."

Speaking of her mother specifically, she added, "I know my mom and how much she wants to live another 20 something years to see all her grandchildren get married and graduate and everything like that. And I know that she would do it for me."