Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Family Of High-Spirited Tar Heels Mascot Donates His Organs

N. Carolina's spirits shattered as their mascot dies of injuries
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Star-Ledger Staff

In the end, the college student who had lifted the spirits of so many North Carolina fans had his own cheering section at Hackensack University Medical Center, with friends, family and even strangers camped in the hallways and the waiting rooms, hoping for good news.

But Jason Ray, the 21-year-old who proudly wore the mascot suit for the Tar Heels, died yesterday morning from injuries he sustained Friday afternoon when an SUV struck him in Fort Lee.

Ray had traveled to New Jersey with the cheerleaders to play the role of Rameses, the team's sleek and furry mascot, as North Carolina played for a spot in the Final Four this weekend in East Rutherford. He never made it to the games. Ray was returning from a nearby convenience store when he was hit about 200 yards from the hotel where he was staying.

No charges have been filed against the SUV's driver, 51-year-old Gagik Hovsepyan of Paramus, Fort Lee police said yesterday.

"There was no doubt Jason was no longer with us," his father, Emmitt Ray, said yesterday. "It's the most terrible thing I have experienced as a parent, obviously. Kids are supposed to outlive you, you know?"

He took comfort from the support his son received from family, friends and other members of the school community. One North Carolina graduate came to the hospital after the game Sunday night, which the Tar Heels lost to Georgetown, even though she had never met Ray.

"She still had a Tar Heel on her cheek," Emmitt Ray said. "She went down in the room and wanted to stay as long as everybody else stayed. That kind of support means an awful lot.

"His roommates, his close friends, they were all here. We had people lying in the halls and the waiting rooms, and the people at the hospital tolerated everything and never said an unkind word. We were treated so well while we were here."

Jason Ray had been performing as the North Carolina mascot since his freshman year. His father said it was his way of supporting the team. He was scheduled to graduate May 13 with a 3.6 grade-point average and a business degree. He minored in religion and was active in the campus' InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Ray spent one summer studying in Europe, traveling from Copenhagen to Spain to run with the bulls in Pamplona. He told his father the trip would cost $5,000, and Emmitt Ray told him to book it.

"In a lot of ways, we've been living vicariously through Jason," said Emmitt Ray, who has three older sons. "We were able to do more for Jason than our other boys, and we always worried if we were doing too much. Now, we wish we could have done 10 times more.

"We had an agreement when he was an eighth-grader that he had to take care of his academics. We want him to have a 3.5 or better, and anything other than that, we'd have a meeting. Never had to have that meeting."

Ray's organs will be donated to the Sharing Network of New Jersey. The family is planning a memorial service in Concord, N.C., where the family lived, and burial in Kentucky, where the family has its roots and an existing grave site. No details have been finalized.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Jason Kendall Ray Memorial Fund, Concord Christian Church, 3101 Davidson Highway, Concord, N.C. 28027.

"My heart goes out to Jason's family," North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams said in a statement. "He was an engaging young man and a friend to a number of our players and managers. They tell me he was a wonderful person. Obviously our team is disappointed with the outcome of Sunday's game, but that pales greatly in comparison with the loss the Ray family is dealing with today. We ask everyone to remember Jason and his family in their prayers."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

2-1 Deal - Great Plan To Help Kids Needing Liver Transplants

I came across this wonderful news on the first morning of spring...a perfect time for new beginnings.

2-for-1 liver transplant saves two

The transplant surgeon had good news: A donated liver was on the way for critically ill Maggie Catherwood. Then he asked: Would she let doctors cut off part of her new liver to share with an equally sick baby?

"I can't imagine anyone saying no," the 21-year-old college student said last week as, teary-eyed, she met 8-month-old Allison Brown, carefully cuddling the wide-eyed baby so as not to bump each other's healing incisions.

Actually, few ever get the choice — something the nation's transplant network soon may change. There's a push to increase liver-splitting that could have many more people who are awaiting transplants being asked to share a piece of their new organ.

If the proposed changes are enacted, "I think it's safe to say we could nearly eliminate death on the pediatric liver waiting list," said Allison's surgeon, Dr. Thomas Fishbein of Georgetown University Hospital.

A liver is unlike any other organ: A piece of a healthy one can grow into a whole organ in about a month. That's why some people receive liver transplants from living donors who have just a portion of their organ cut out and given away.

Split-liver donation is different. It divides an organ donated when someone dies, to try to save two lives with one donation.

It doesn't happen very often, accounting for between 2 and 3 percent of the more than 6,000 liver transplants annually. Just 123 split-liver transplants were performed in the U.S. last year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which runs the transplant system.

Particularly rare, says Fishbein, is an adult agreeing to share a liver that the waiting-list rules deem completely his or hers. Usually when a liver is split, an organ too large for a baby or small child had to be cut to fit anyway — and pediatric surgeons who don't want to waste the rest offer it to the next candidate on the waiting list.

"I didn't even know it was possible" to split a liver, said Catherwood. But she said yes, and her first question upon waking up from surgery was, "How's the baby?"

"The fact that someone else was willing to give up part of that liver they need is amazing to me," said Terri Brown, Allison's mother, in an emotional meeting with Catherwood 12 days after the transplants.

"Oh, she's adorable, oh my gosh!" exclaimed Catherwood from her wheelchair as Allison's father, Brian, handed her the baby, tiny white dog slippers peeking from beneath her blanket.

Not every transplant center has the expertise or incentive to split livers, especially those that treat only adults. It's a more technically challenging operation. It poses a slightly higher risk of post-surgery complications, such as maintaining the good blood flow necessary for the organ to survive.

Nor is every donated liver splittable. It must be a very healthy organ, not the marginal ones often transplanted; typically, the donor was a young adult who died from an accident.

But a rough estimate from the United Network for Organ Sharing is that more than 1,000 livers donated a year might qualify for splitting. Fishbein is part of a the network committee charged with spurring those transplants to try to save more youngsters. Between 10 percent and 13 percent of young children die while on the liver waiting list, including 41 babies last year.

Pending proposals would mandate that all transplant centers be notified when a potentially splittable liver is donated, and that the search for a matching recipient identify those willing to accept a partial organ.

"This is a really important topic," said Dr. George Mazariegos, transplant chief at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who says liver-splitting today is too dependent on individual surgeons.

"We want to take it to ... a national type of initiative where it's always thought of and always considered when there are certain criteria that are met."

Catherwood's symptoms started in the fall, when suddenly she couldn't keep food down. The day after her 21st birthday, she learned she had Wilson's disease — her liver couldn't properly dispose of the copper in food. The quiet buildup was destroying it. In early February, the Sterling, Va., woman joined the nearly 17,000 people on the waiting list for liver transplants.

Allison was 3 1/2 months old when doctors discovered her worsening jaundice meant biliary atresia — the Waldorf, Md., girl was born without all her major bile ducts. She joined the transplant list in early December, the whites of her eyes turning canary yellow as the months ticked by and her liver shut down.

Livers are distributed to the sickest patients first. Late on Feb. 27, Georgetown's Dr. Cal Matsumoto got word that the transplant network had flagged Catherwood to receive a liver from a teenager who had just died. Knowing Allison was a match, too, he broached the two-for-one transplant.

Most surgeons insist on splitting the liver themselves to be sure it's done right. Fishbein is used to middle-of-the-night trips to far-away hospitals to retrieve one piece. This time, the organ was flown on ice to Georgetown, for Fishbein and Matsumoto to divide. The left lobe — just under 20 percent — went to Allison, the rest to Catherwood in an adjoining operating room.

Surgeons carefully calculate the minimum amount of healthy liver a patient needs in the month it will take to regenerate. Indeed, the slight risk associated with split-liver transplants is usually due to not getting a big enough piece, problems with how the organ was divided, or delays in transplanting, explained Philadelphia's Mazariegos.

A liver also can be sliced into 60-40 sections for two adults, as is done with living donors. But split-liver transplants between two adults are controversial. It's harder to calculate the right volume fast enough, before the organ deteriorates.

For Catherwood and Allison, the transplant seems to be working, although they have the same risk of long-term organ rejection as any transplant recipient. Catherwood was recuperating at home, well enough even before she was discharged to indulge in chocolate. Allison remained in the hospital for observation, but her liver was clearing away the jaundice.

"It's so exciting to see what her eyes look like," her father said. "We got so lucky."


EDITOR'S NOTE — Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.