After donating about 30 percent of his liver to his sister this summer, Ed Henry is amazed at what happened next.
Not only is his sister on the road to a normal life, but almost all of his liver grew back in less than six weeks.
“The fact that your liver can regenerate itself is incredible — it’s a medical miracle,” said Ed, 48, who works in the District as chief national correspondent for the Fox News Channel.
“We all grew up with the idea that you can check a box on your driver’s license to become a donor in case you’re killed in a car accident,” he said. “But how many people are aware that you can also be a live liver donor? The human body is remarkable.”
Ed has almost recuperated from his surgery on July 9, while his sister, Colleen Henry, 46, is doing well despite a longer recovery period as a donor recipient. For more than a decade, she struggled with a rare hereditary condition called primary biliary cholangitis, an autoimmune liver disease that destroys the bile ducts and can lead to scarring of the liver. Her symptoms included extreme fatigue, itchy skin and a progressively yellowing complexion.
Thanks to her brother’s donation, she should be able to live a normal, healthy life, said her surgeon, Sander Florman, director of the Recanati/Miller Transplantation Institute at Mount Sinai in New York.
“At this point,” Florman said, “it’s safe to say that Colleen will die of something else like the rest of us, not liver disease.”
Ed said he hopes to be back on the air at Fox later this fall, 20 pounds lighter and with a new appreciation for his liver — the only internal organ that can regenerate itself.
“When I initially told a friend that I was going to donate part of my liver to my sister, he exploded and said, ‘What? You can’t do that! You can’t live without your liver!’ ” Ed recalled. “He had no idea, and to be honest, early on, neither did I. Most people don’t know that this is possible, so it’s been a fantastic thing to help raise public awareness.”
Because Colleen’s new liver needs to grow by 70 percent, her recovery process is more slow and difficult, she said. But she is already feeling more upbeat than she has in years.
“My doctors are encouraged by my progress, and that gives me confidence that every day will get better,” she said. “I’m home taking it easy, and know that I’ll feel better and better as my new liver regenerates.”
Her brother’s donation was the ultimate gift of sacrifice and selfless love, added Colleen, a single mother of two teenagers who also works two jobs as a salon receptionist and a supermarket customer service clerk in Long Island.
“I truly believe he saved my life and that he is the bravest of superheroes,” she said. “I adore my brother and would likewise do anything for him. My gratitude will never be enough.”
Live donor liver transplants are rare, making up only 4 percent of such transplants in the United States, said Florman, noting that Mount Sinai has done about 400 live donor liver transplants since 1998.
The biggest risk to donors is the possibility of infection, he said.
“It’s not risk-free, but in the right hands, with the right safeguards, it should be able to be done safely,” Florman said. “We have a massive team to take care of the people like Ed who step up to do this.”
“Living donations is an area we went into hoping we’d go out of business,” he added. “The reality is that we need more people to sign up to become deceased donors.”
More than 16,000 Americans are on the national transplant list for a new liver, Florman said, but 10 to 15 percent will die waiting.
“We do living donations because we have to,” he said. “And for every person who goes through the intense process to become a donor, another four or five get turned down because not everyone’s liver can be split in a way to donate. There’s not a dotted line on the liver that says ‘cut here.’ It’s complicated.”
In Ed’s case, the surgical team was able to take the smaller left side of his liver and implant it in his sister, Florman said.
“That will help him to recover faster and it’s also safer [than cutting into the larger right side],” he said. “It really is a big operation.”
Ed calls his sister the real hero of the story “for battling this so bravely for so long. For years, she’s endured a lot of pain.”
She was diagnosed 10 years ago but kept her condition to herself for as long as she could, not wanting to worry her children, her parents and her only sibling. Then in May 2018, doctors told her it was time to place her name on the national liver transplant waiting list.
“The good news was that I didn’t have to wait for a cadaver donor,” she said, “but the bad news was that I was to start searching for a live donor and was advised to start with a sibling.”
She couldn’t imagine asking her brother.
“I was concerned about the tremendous sacrifice donating an organ would be, and the implications on his health, well-being, family and career,” she said.
Unbeknown to Colleen, her brother had already stepped up.
“I’d put on my reporter’s cap and asked some of her friends what was going on, then I decided to reach out to doctors at Mount Sinai where Colleen was being treated by a liver specialist,” Ed said. “I told them I wanted to explore the possibility of becoming a live donor.”
He turned out to be a perfect match for his sister, providing that he lost 10 to 15 pounds to cleanse fat from his liver.
“Colleen wanted to shoulder everything on her own,” he said, “but I was ready to do this. I went into this with a real mission: I wanted to help somebody I love.”
Colleen said she felt “emotionally overwhelmed” by his decision.
“We’ve always had a strong sibling bond,” she said, “but I was distressed about asking him. I feel beyond blessed and grateful.”
On the night before the transplant, they gathered at one of Ed’s favorite Italian restaurants in Manhattan for a seafood dinner with a couple of Colleen’s friends and Ed’s wife, Shirley. Reminiscing about their childhood in Deer Park, Long Island, they tried not to think about the operation the following morning.
The morning of the surgery (about a six-hour procedure for Ed and eight hours for his sister), the siblings held hands as they were prepped and wished each other strength through tears, Colleen said.
“The anticipation leading up to the surgery was tremendously stressful,” she said. “But all the care, concern, love, prayers and support carried us through.”
Although he confessed that he felt like he’d been “run over by a truck” when he woke up after the surgery, Ed was on his feet 48 hours later, toasting a successful operation with his sister over paper cups filled with apple juice.
At his three-week checkup, doctors told Ed his liver function was normal and that most of the organ had already grown back.
But nothing means more to him than the weekly texts he receives from his sister, celebrating each milestone.
“ ‘It’s our one-week anniversary,’ Colleen will write,” he said. “Or, ‘it’s our two-week anniversary.’ Our three-week anniversary. I love you.’ That brings it all home.”