A life saved, a life changed

Healthy, athletic Kristian Vaughn volunteered for a 12-hour surgery to give a new liver to Zanyah Brown, a little Milwaukee girl he didn’t know.
Ozaukee Press staff

Thanksgiving is going to be a little different for Kristian Vaughn this year.

So is every holiday and every other day, for that matter.

Vaughn, who is 27, has a new outlook on his life after donating part of an organ to a little girl that saved hers.

That wasn’t the initial plan, but happy endings are all around in this story.

Vaughn first attempted to help the 3-year-old son of a longtime family friend who needed a liver. He could spare 30% of his since it’s the only organ in the human body that regenerates, and was a near perfect match.

“I did feel a sense of responsibility,” he said.

But at the last minute, another liver became available.

Vaughn didn’t need to undergo one of the most complex of transplant operations, but his transplant coordinator said he was a great match for any child because of his physical fitness and the strong condition of his organs.

“When I heard that news, I gave her a call back,” Vaughn said.

He wanted to stay on the transplant list to see if he could help another child.

In just a few weeks, a match for another child was found.

It could have been anywhere in the country, but it happened to be in Milwaukee.

The match was discovered by the chief transplant surgeon at Froedtert Hospital and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

That worked well for Vaughn, a Milwaukee native now living in Cedarburg whose parents Kris and Cheryl live in Grafton.

But it wasn’t as easy as just going in for the procedure.

Vaughn faced a battery of extensive tests on his body and overall health to ensure the transplant could work. He had a team that included a social worker, nutritionist, pharmacist and hepatologist (a doctor specializing in the liver).

He met with a committee of medical professionals that checked his test results, disposition and body language to make sure he wanted to go through with the transplant. He had to give “informed consent” on several occasions.

He was assigned an independent advocate, a trauma surgeon at Froedtert, who he constantly talked to.

The advocate could pause the transplant process at any time if he ever deemed Vaughn to be unsure.

But Vaughn was undeterred.

“I was committed. I felt it was important to do,” he said.

A week after meeting with the committee, he was given the go-ahead, and Vaughn had to give consent again.

Surgery was scheduled for Dec. 12 last year. The day before, he met his recipient, something to which both parties had to agree to make happen.

Zanyah Brown, 4, has a condition in which cysts grow in her bile ducts that connect to her liver, causing backups and infection.

Treatments address the symptoms, but a transplant is the only solution to the underlying issue.

Vaughn and Brown were to be in good hands. Froedtert’s transplant program is federally certified and among the best in the country.

And her insurance provider covered the cost.

Surgery for Vaughn lasted 12 hours. The procedure included more testing, a biopsy and exploratory surgery to make the final determination if he was a candidate.

Once Vaughn was a go, the little girl went into surgery.

After being sedated for half a day, it took Vaughn several hours to wake up.

He has a 15-inch scar on his abdomen in the shape of a peace sign. It runs from his sternum to his navel, then splits two ways.

He was in intensive care for eight days before spending several days in a transplant ward. He was released two days before Christmas.

His parents moved into his house to help take care of him.

“It was a wonderful Christmas but it was very quiet,” he said.

Life for the young, athletic man who never so much as broke a bone or had surgery, worked out often and appreciated craft beer came to a screeching halt.

Vaughn wasn’t allowed to lift 10 pounds for two months.

His abs aren’t part of a cohesive unit anymore, causing a slight stoop and requiring the retraining of muscles to sit up straight. He couldn’t have a drop of alcohol for a year.

His employer at the time, a Milwaukee consulting firm, let him work part-time, and he had to interrupt his studies for a doctorate in architecture for a few months.

But, Vaughn said, the operation done by surgeon Johnny Hong was a huge success. Within three days, the donated piece of his liver was growing inside Brown. Although doctors expect at least some rejection with transplants and have medicines to combat it, the girl experienced none.

Because of his active lifestyle, Vaughn informed his doctors he would be aggressive about recovery. He was jogging in five weeks and lifting weights in 10. By April, he was back to 60 and 90-minute workouts.

“That’s not typical. It’s just that I wanted to resume my life,” he said.

Vaughn has returned to his doctoral studies and recently started a new job at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

And he’s back pursuing another passion, riding horses at Pinewood Farm on Highway 60.

But there are other changes.

“I went into the surgery one guy and I came out another,” he said. “You recalibrate your life, what do you want to do and what do you care about.”

For Vaughn, that means spending more time with family and friends. He said he is a more patient, empathetic and compassionate person.

“You can’t stop time and you can’t rewind time, but you can slow it down,” he said. “When you slow it down, you have to do it with intent. People are the emphasis of my life right now.”

One of those is Brown. They get together regularly. She had been too sick to attend school, but Vaughn, cracking a huge smile, said Brown started kindergarten this fall.

In looking back, Vaughn said he would make the same decision.

“I’m this really healthy guy who can sacrifice a couple months of my life so she can live her life well,” he said. “At the end of the day for me, it was the right thing to do. My conscience told me to do it.” He doesn’t even take all the credit himself. Vaughn can’t say enough about his medical professionals and a willing young girl.

Vaughn hopes his experience can be a rallying cry for more liver transplants. Of the 35,000 transplants in the past five years in the U.S. only 20 have been living liver operations, he said.

Vaughn urges people to check out the United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages the country’s transplant system, at unos.org.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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