When 20-year-old Tessa Hertel worked in the Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center laboratory, coworkers would often mention the name of Dr. Jeffery Steers, an Avera Transplant Institute physician who was helping to develop a liver transplant program at Avera. Wondering why Dr. Steers’ name sounded so familiar, she mentioned her curiosity to her mother.
In a twist of fate, Hertel learned Steers had performed her liver transplant 19 years ago, when she was just 13 months old.
Hertel’s transplant journey began at a two-month well-baby checkup. The physician asked Hertel’s mother how long her daughter’s skin had been yellow. Three days later, after a series of tests and exploratory surgery, Hertel was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a type of liver disease that caused her own body to attack her bile ducts so her liver could not drain properly.
Transplant was the only option. After one year on the transplant waitlist, a liver became available to baby Hertel. That call they waited so long for came in the early evening of April 24, 1997. By midnight, the Hertel family arrived in Rochester for the April 25 surgery.
The donor was a 12-year-old girl who tragically passed away in a car/pedestrian accident. “I met my donor family when I was 2 years old, and we’ve continued to stay in touch,” said Hertel. “They even came to my high school graduation.”
Steers said meeting Hertel and seeing her do so well today, like many other patients, is a rewarding mark to his career.
Since the mid-1990s, Avera Transplant has been the leading kidney transplant program in the Dakotas. The facility is also home to the Dakotas’ only pancreas transplant and bone marrow transplant programs.
In October 2016, Avera Transplant earned active program status for liver transplant from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).
“It was only fitting to incorporate liver transplant into a well-established transplant program,” said Steers. “States without a comprehensive liver program tend to be put on the back burner for receiving livers for patients who are waiting for transplants.” About 50 South Dakotans currently wait for a liver match.
The liver transplant program emerged from the successful Avera Medical Group Liver Disease program created in 2007, when Avera’s first hepatologists arrived at the transplant institute. Treated conditions include liver failure, cirrhosis, hepatitis C, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and many other liver conditions. Depending on the amount of damage, the individual may need a new liver.
The advantage of having a liver transplant program near home has already proven evident for Hertel. “I no longer have to take time off work and travel to Rochester for my yearly checkup; we just come to Sioux Falls,” she said, regarding the 40-minute drive instead of the four-hour drive.
Today, Hertel enjoys riding horses and spending time with family and friends. She also advocates to others about becoming an organ donor, especially in April — National Donate Life Month. Donate Life America reports more than 120,000 individuals wait for an organ donation.
“I’ve talked to families who have experienced the death of a loved one, and many have appreciated seeing their loved one’s legacy carried on through organ donation,” said Steers.
Before parting, Hertel gave Steers a big hug, saying, “He saved my life.” She wishes she could give her 12-year-old donor a hug, too. “I think of her every day, and thank her for saving my life as well.”