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Williamsburg woman donates kidney to husband, part of liver to a friend

Leah Luongo defines kindness by donating twice — an extremely rare act that saved two lives.

Chandos Brown, Leah Luongo and Bruce Luongo Chandos Brown, Leah Luongo and Bruce Luongo

By Esther Benenson

Leah Luongo of Williamsburg, Va., was barely through the living donor evaluation process at VCU Health when she had an idea. Maybe after donating a kidney to her husband, she could donate part of her liver to somebody else in need.

“I kind of half joked to my coordinator that since they were taking my right kidney, was there any way to just go ahead and do both at the same time?”

Leah had just learned that the spouse of a friend now needed a liver. “I was kinda like, ‘Well, I’m going to be in there anyway.”

Timing off for liver donation

VCU Health wasn’t performing living donor liver transplants at the time, so Leah missed her opportunity. But deep in the recesses of her mind, she knew she’d donate again.

Meanwhile, her husband, Bruce, had his kidney transplant. He and Leah both went back to work, and life returned to normal.

But then they checked their Facebook pages. Chandos Brown needed a liver.

This time the timing was right

Bruce and Leah had met Chandos roughly 30 years ago. Leah was an American studies major at the College of William & Mary at the time. Chandos was a history professor. The three would often socialize at a favorite restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg, but the Luongos hadn’t seen Chandos in years.

Leah had already completed the paperwork to donate part of her liver to a stranger in need at another institution. She quickly messaged Chandos that she would like to be his donor. It was then she learned that VCU Health had reopened its living donor liver program. She could donate at VCU Health, close to both of their homes and the site where she had already donated a kidney.

Selflessness runs in the family

Leah grew up in a household where volunteering was second nature. Her father, M. W. “Abby” Abernathy, a WWII veteran and a lineman for the local phone company, was a volunteer firefighter and a member of the Lions Club. Upon retirement, he drove people from rural Emporia to Richmond for medical appointments and installed phone lines for Habitat for Humanity.

Leah helped. As a child she stood beside him, with his firefighter’s boot, collecting money for the annual MDA telethon. She joined service clubs and was a girl scout. Like her father, giving was natural. It was simply something you did.

Liver transplant goes well

Leah’s only concern about donating part of her liver to Chandos was that her liver might be too small. Chandos was over 6 feet tall. She was only 5’2. Nonetheless, they were a perfect match, and their surgeries went off without a hitch.

Recalling her first donation in 2016, to her husband, Leah remembered it as “way too easy.”

“We couldn't have asked for a smoother experience,” she said. When talking to her husband about donating part of her liver to Chandos, she asked, “Could it be this easy twice?”

And it was. The surgery took place January 14, 2020, and three months post-transplant, Leah was back at work in Colonial Williamsburg and Chandos was planning his return to teaching. At present they’re both healthy, feeling well and continuing in their jobs despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was pretty exciting,” Leah said. “Everything went exceptionally well. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around just how well everything went. And so the answer to the question of ‘Could it be this easy twice’ was yes. It really could be that easy twice. It worked out beautifully.”

Giving is the gift

Whereas some might say the transplant patient receives the gift — in this case, a donated liver, and before that, a kidney — Leah is quick to point out that it was she, the donor, who received the gift.

“I really do feel like I’ve been blessed to be able to do this,” Leah noted. “It's not something that everybody can do, even if they’re healthy enough. I've been lucky. I was healthy enough to do it, and I had a job that gave me enough sick pay that I could take off 12 weeks and still have income coming in. It would be nice if everybody who wanted to do it and was healthy enough could, but it doesn't work that way.”

“It’s rare that we meet an individual who will not only donate once, but twice,” said Dr. David Bruno, surgical director of adult and pediatric liver transplantation at the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center. “Leah is truly a gift to humanity.”

Living donors like Leah helped make a transplant milestone possible at Hume-Lee. In September, the center marked its 100th liver transplant of 2020. That’s 100 lives saved through organ transplantation. The center has been performing liver transplants amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the number breaks an annual record for Hume-Lee — which had been 87 liver transplants for an entire calendar year.

“It’s our brave patients, donors and outstanding team that make these transplants possible,” said Bruno. “The awe-inspiring care and coordination means a second chance for more patients.”

Words of advice for would-be living donors

Trust your team, and trust the process, Leah said. “They definitely have your best interest at heart. They are very well aware that you’re putting yourself through a surgery that you absolutely have no medical reason for. They definitely take care of their donor.”

In addition, “They really make sure that we are good candidates before they decide to do it. Nobody takes it lightly. They're not going to put us in harm’s way.”

“Living donation is a safe and effective means of dealing with the organ shortage,” said Dr. Vinay Kumaran, surgical director of living donor liver transplantation at the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center. His resume includes more than 700 living liver donor cases . “I am continuously inspired by living donors and their selfless act to save the life of another. They are heroes who receive exceptional care here at VCU Health.”

You, too, can help save lives

As of October 19, 2020, 12,339 people were on the national waiting list for a liver and 99,480 for a kidney, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). On average, 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, with three of those people waiting for a liver.

For information on how you can become a living donor, please visit the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center living donor services. We perform both living donor kidney transplants and living donor liver transplants.

For information on all of our transplant services, please visit the Hume-Lee Transplant Center.