Last month, 10-month-old Paityn Walters of Peshtigo began to act tired, was throwing up and would cry while she was awake. Her mom, Tara Ellison, said it was out of character and troubling. “She was [normally] just very energetic. Never stood still. Always getting into everything she could,” she said.
Doctors diagnosed baby Paityn with the flu. Still, she wasn’t getting better. She went to the emergency room in Marinette, ended up in a Green Bay Hospital and from there was quickly flown to The Wisconsin Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee. Paityn had contracted a virus that quickly shut down her liver. Doctors gave her mere days to live without a transplant.
“By the time we got [to Milwaukee] it was already too late,” said Paityn’s father Eric Walters. “It was pretty much dead, the liver.”
“The risk of dying was 100 percent because once the liver has totally failed, the other organs will follow,” said Johnny Hong, MD, a transplant surgeon at both Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
She was put on a national donation list, but there was no deceased match for her. “The waiting game was nerve-wracking. It made me sick to my stomach sitting there waiting for a certain phone call,” described Ellison.
With time running out, family members came forward to be tested as a match for Paityn. Her mother’s 27-year-old cousin Caitlin Lock was deemed an excellent match by doctors—female, O negative blood type, and a fitting height and weight.
The transplant would mean risky, ten-hour operation that would leave Lock unable to work her two retail jobs for about a month—scaring her parents. “They were terrified, of course,” said Lock. “Their child was going to have a life-threatening surgery that she didn’t need. But they supported me ultimately 100 percent.”
Lock said the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee staff encouraged her to take her time, but her mind had been made immediately. “They were like, you have a few more days if you need to think about it. And I said, there’s nothing to think about. She is going to die. It’s not a question; it’s yes.”
“It’s a big surgery, particularly in individuals like her who is a tiny, ten-month old baby, so it’s a major surgery and a high-risk procedure,” said Dr. Hong.
The transplant took place within four days of Paityn’s admittance. On Monday, July 27th, the surgery lasted from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. and was deemed a success by hospital staff. Though Paityn has other mountains to climb, Hong told Action 2 News he expects her to make a full recovery.
Lock was released from the hospital earlier this week and will remain on unpaid leave for approximately one month. Paityn’s family says they will forever be grateful for her sacrifice.
“Paityn had a 100 percent chance of dying. She was not going to make it. Thanks to Caiti, she survived,” said Paityn’s father, Eric Walters.
“Very emotional because especially you’re dealing with a small child and it involves multiple lives. You have the life of the baby and then the life of the donor. It clearly shows you the goodness in humankind,” said Dr. Hong, adding that he was “grateful for the opportunity” to work on this transplant.
Lock says the attention she’s received—specifically on Facebook—is surprising. “I really didn’t expect that. I thought it was a cool thing for me to do, but for everyone else to think so too is overwhelming.”
Lock is an organ donor advocate. She’s spent years donating blood, “ever since I was 18, since you could start!” she said. She’s put herself on other lists, too, like the bone barrow transplant list.
According to the American Liver Foundation, 1,500 will die this year waiting for a liver transplant. Lock wants to inspire others to try what she’s done. “The liver is quite an amazing organ where it just grows back. So yes I lost a part of it now, but it’s growing back,” she said.
Paityn’s mom Tara Ellison was teary-eyed talking about her cousin’s loving gift. “I’m very thankful for Caiti. I know she doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but it was huge for us.”
“No one’s expecting me to do more than I have, but I would love to do more because it’s going to be a huge financial debt,” said Lock. “Obviously Paityn’s still sick and she could still be in here for a lot longer.”
One month earlier, Paityn’s family was working and planning a family camping trip. They’ll likely spend the next two months or more in Milwaukee, not working.
“Whatever we have to do, whatever we have to sell to make it for our kids, we’re gonna do it,” said Ellison.
“We’re not going home until Paityn gets better. I guess it’s just like a nightmare, I don’t wish anybody to go through this,” said Walters.
Ellison said she has a message to other parents who read her story. “Trust a mother’s instinct,” she said. “We just felt like, this is not Paityn. This is more than just the flu. And we were going to take it as far as we needed to for someone give us the answer we felt was right.”
Dr. Hong said other children have had the same surgery and “grown up to live normal lives, and have families of their own.” However, Paityn will be on a medicine for the rest of her life that controls her immune system, which will be weaker than normal.
The family will be in Milwaukee for the next two months while Paityn recovers at the hospital.
To follow their progress or donate to their medical debt, click the links below:
Wells Fargo: Care 4 Caitlin Fund and Paityn Walters Miracle Fund
A benefit for Paityn will be held on October 10, 2015, at Pullman House, Menominee, Mich.