News & Stories

Nicole’s Path

May 16, 2019

Nicole donated part of her liver, and saved a little girl’s life. Thanks to your generosity, they are both doing great!

It’s just over a year since five-year-old Penelope Hansen’s liver transplant. But the story of Nicole Freidenfelds’s life-saving gift—a portion of her liver—began long before Penelope was born.

Living Liver Donation
Penelope (left) and Nicole (right) discovered they shared a love for donuts and pizza. Now they also share Nicole’s liver! “I felt Nicole was a kindred spirit,” says Penelope’s Mom. “The perfect liver to be in Penelope!”

Nicole’s path to liver donation

Nicole’s father was dying of liver failure in 2010 when she heard a story on the radio about a miraculous-seeming medical procedure: living liver donation. It was too late for her dad, but the idea that you can donate a portion of your liver to save a life made a powerful impression on Nicole.

As the daughter of someone with liver disease, she saw the lifesaving potential of liver donation. And as a professional biologist, she was fascinated by the liver’s amazing ability to regrow to full size and functionality in both the donor and the recipient. After her father passed away, living liver donation was always at the back of Nicole’s mind.

Early in 2017, she decided the time was right to become a donor, even though she didn’t have a particular recipient in mind. She called the Yale New Haven Transplantation Center and volunteered to be an “altruistic donor,” choosing to make a gift of life anonymously to a complete stranger.

Penelope’s path to liver transplant

AmberJean and Shawn’s first child, Penelope, was born in 2013. In the happy days leading up to the birth, they had typical parent-to-be worries, like… what should she sleep in—a onesie or pajamas?

That changed in a hurry. Shortly after Penelope was born, her doctor suspected that something wasn’t right about her liver function.

“The doctor used the words liver transplant,” says AmberJean. “After that, I couldn’t hear anything else.” Penelope was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a disease that damages the liver and can lead to liver failure and death.

Penelope would need a new liver. The goal in the short term was to keep her as healthy as possible.

She endured many months of painful symptoms—a swollen belly, enlarged spleen, stomach bleeds, and shortness of breath—to name just a few. But by age three, her doctors at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital felt she couldn’t wait any longer. In early 2017, she was put on the national waiting list for a liver from a deceased donor.

That’s when their paths intersected

The wait for an organ from a deceased donor can be dangerously long—sometimes too long. The wait for a living donor transplant, however, is usually much shorter. It doesn’t for everyone, but AmberJean and Shawn hoped it would work for Penelope. So they waited.

A few months later, the Transplantation Center notified them of a living donor match.

On August 23, 2017, Nicole and Penelope were wheeled into adjacent operating rooms. A perfectly sized segment of Nicole’s liver was removed, carried a few steps next door, and transplanted into Penelope. The transplant was a complete success.

“Penelope looked better immediately after the surgery,” says AmberJean. “It was a remarkable difference. I felt I could finally breathe for the first time!”

Penelope will always require routine medical monitoring, but as AmberJean says, “We know she’ll need a lifetime of follow-up, but that’s the point—she’s going to have a whole lifetime!”

Nicole’s life is forever enriched too. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. What I got out of it, this feeling of helping someone, is something I now have for the rest of my life.”

Thank you to all our wonderful donors—financial and organ—for helping make near-miracles possible.