A gift of life

Published 8:00 pm Saturday, December 1, 2012

Former Albert Lea resident Mary Brackey, left, sits with her mother, Evelyn, during a recent visit to Albert Lea after Thanksgiving. Mary was the recipient of a live liver transplant in 2010 and has been featured on a documentary "Transplant: A Gift for Life." — Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune


Former A.L. resident featured in PBS documentary after live liver transplant

How do you say thank you for the ultimate gift of life?

That’s the question former Albert Lean Mary Brackey asks herself each September as she carries on her life healthy and thriving.

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Brackey, who graduated from Albert Lea High School in 1980, was the recipient of a live liver transplant on Sept. 29, 2010. Less than a year before, doctors had diagnosed her with primary biliary cirrhosis of the liver and told her she had a year to live.

“It’s one of those situations where you just know it’s a life-changer,” she said. “The way I look at things now is different.”

Brackey, who lives with her partner Karen Haakonson, in Crystal, a suburb of Minneapolis, is one of several organ donors and recipients profiled in “Transplant: A Gift for Life,” a PBS documentary co-produced by filmmaker Dennis Mahoney and TPT National Productions.

It aired on KSMQ in March, and may be shown again in 2013, according to producers.

“If you want to see what a difference you can make by being a donor, you can see it in the documentary,” Brackey said. “It really covers the gamut of what organ donation is all about.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are currently 116,568 people in the United States waiting for an organ, and about 18 people die each day waiting for a transplant.

“The goal is to get more people to sign up to be organ donors,” Brackey said.

‘My life had stopped’

In 2009, Brackey, then 40, began having dry, itchy skin and insomnia. Not knowing then that the symptoms were tied to something greater, she said she eventually got used to feeling tired and didn’t think much of it.

Until one day — on Nov. 18, 2009 — she threw up blood.

That’s when she found out she had liver damage.

“The very first thing I remember at that time was feeling like my life had stopped,” she said. “It was right before Thanksgiving. It just consumed everything.

“It was one of those moments where you know nothing is ever going to be the same again.”

A few weeks later, on Dec. 7, 2009, doctors told her she had primary biliary cirrhosis of the liver, an autoimmune disease that causes the liver to stop producing bile and causes jaundice. The cause of the disease is unknown.

Three weeks later, she went to the Transplant Center at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Fairview, where doctors began evaluating her liver and figuring out if she was healthy enough to receive a liver transplant.

They calculated her MELD score — or Model for End-Stage Liver Disease score — which determines where she would be placed on the transplant list.

The person with the highest MELD score is offered an organ first.

Brackey said at one point doctors talked to her about the possibility of having a live donor as an option. Because the liver has the capability of regenerating on its own, a living person can donate 55 to 70 percent of the liver to another person, and within about four to six weeks, the portions of liver in both people can regenerate to full size and function.

“I said, ‘I can’t ask anybody to do that,’” Brackey said.

‘I didn’t know what to say’

In March or April of 2010, Brackey had dinner with a longtime golfing friend, Angie Ryter. She said she explained to Ryter what was going on with her liver, and then Brackey said she didn’t hear anything more from her until she received a call July 2, 2010.

“She said I have a liver for you if you want it,” Brackey said. “It was this moment of absolute silence. I didn’t know what to say.”

Brackey said Ryter, of St. Paul, had gone through the appropriate testing and found out she would be a match.

“It’s hard to accept that kind of gift,” Brackey said. “There were so many times when I said I can’t let her do this or what if something happened to her.”

The two women had several conversations about the idea before they ultimately decided to move forward with the surgery.

A few weeks later, in August of 2010, Brackey said she received a call from the University of Minnesota about Mahoney, who was making a documentary and wanted to follow her liver transplant.

She and Ryter met Mahoney and said they “knew right away he was doing this for the right reason.”

‘She’s our hero’

Brackey and Ryter arrived for surgery at 5:30 a.m. Sept. 29, 2010, The film crew was already in place, and after a couple-hour delay, the two women were taken into surgery.

The surgery lasted about five hours, and surgeons removed Brackey’s entire old liver and gall bladder, and in place she received 60 percent of Ryter’s liver.

Brackey said her old liver was 12 pounds — or four times the size of what a normal liver is.

Ryter was released from the hospital after five days and returned to playing hockey that December.

Brackey said she went home six days after the surgery, but ultimately encountered a few complications and had an additional surgery to have a stint put in her bile duct.

Following that complication, however, Brackey said she recovered quickly and by Christmas she was in good condition.

Every two months for the rest of her life she will have to have her blood tested. She called it a small price to pay, considering she could have lost her life.

She has spoken to others who are going through the same thing she did and encourages them to have hope and support.

“How you approach situations of stress, it makes a huge difference in your outcome,” Brackey said.

Brackey’s mother, Evelyn, said the family celebrates the successful transplant each September and also celebrates Ryter for her gift to their family.

“She’s our hero, definitely,” Brackey’s brother David said.

Brackey’s mother, Evelyn, and two of her brothers, David and Wayne, live in Albert Lea. One of her sisters, Cheryl Hagen, lives in Hartland.


About “Transplant: A Gift for Life:”

The PBS documentary was created in partnership between filmmaker Dennis Mahoney and TPT National Productions.

A liver transplant recipient himself, Mahoney highlights the need for organ donors each day in the United States.

He profiles organ recipients and donors both young and old and the process they face before and after transplants. He also interviews leading surgeons and specialists from Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.

Mahoney ultimately died from cancer — unrelated to his transplant — in February. He was honored posthumously in September with a Midwest Regional Emmy Award for Best Topical Documentary.

The documentary can be viewed at http://video.pbs.org/video/2299957982.


Organ transplants by the numbers:

79: average number of people who receive organ transplants each day.

18: average number of people who die each day waiting for a transplant.

62: percent of all living donors who were women in 2010.

116,568: number of people in the United States waiting for an organ.

28,000: number of transplants completed in 2011.

8: number of lives one organ donor can save.

— Information from www.organdonor.gov