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Son gifts his mother half his liver days before Christmas

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Lisa Shanahan, 50, and son Colin Hambrook, 19.

While some shopped for last-minute Christmas presents last week, one son chose to give his mother another chance at life.

On the Wednesday before Christmas, Colin Hambrook, 19, the youngest of three siblings, gave his mother, Lisa Shanahan, 50, half of his liver.


"I knew it was going to be hell like it is now," Hambrook said from his hospital bed at the University of Maryland Medical Center, where mother and son rested Christmas Eve. "But from all the times she felt bad, I'm sure this doesn't even come close."

Shanahan, a Rosedale resident, has suffered with primary biliary cirrhosis, or PBC — an autoimmune disease that damages the bile ducts in the liver — for over 20 years. For many of those years, her condition was misdiagnosed.


Shanahan's symptoms began with extreme fatigue.

"I called it mommy disease, because I have three kids and I had a full-time job," she said.

But itching, starting with her feet, soon followed. Then came rashes all over her body and jaundice — the yellowing of her skin and eyes.

Doctors concluded more than five years ago that Shanahan's liver was failing, but it was difficult for her to find a suitable liver donor.

Shanahan's blood type — O positive — meant she could receive a transplant only from donors with the same blood type. And her height — 4 feet, 10 inches — meant she would need a liver from a child or an adult her size.

Even then, the odds wouldn't be good.

Dr. Rolf Barth, Shanahan's doctor, is director of liver transplant and head of the transplantation division at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Barth said even at the university's medical center — which has the second-largest liver transplant program in the country and one of the top 10 for living liver donation — half of the people who need transplants will not receive them.


"Generally, transplants go to the very sickest of patients," Barth said. "So if you have an advanced disease but you're not the sickest person, you don't have the chance to get a liver transplant unless you have a living donor."

Shanahan was not at the top of the list. Her only chance was if someone in her family stepped forward, Barth said.

Hambrook, Shanahan's youngest son, volunteered to donate some of his.

Shanahan said it blew her away.

"He's an athlete. He's healthy. He works out every day ... he doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke. It's a risky surgery, giving up half of your liver," Shanahan said, her voice quivering.

"But he said, 'I need you around.' ... It makes me cry."


Shanahan and Hambrook first talked about the possibility of him donating a portion of his liver last winter. Hambrook broached the topic after years of seeing his mother suffer — the pain caused her to quit her job in May, leaving her without income.

At age 11, "he was like my little caregiver," Shanahan said.

Hambrook researched his mother's disease on the Internet. He would remind her to rest and told her what foods she was or wasn't supposed to eat.

"I didn't really know what it was," Hambrook said. "But as I got older, I definitely understood it was more serious. ... I figured I'd do something about it, and I did."

Hambrook went through rounds of testing this year to ensure that he was a match.

Once he got confirmation, Shanahan said, he sent her a text: "Mom, I'm going to be your Christmas present."


The procedure went smoothly, Barth said. It began around 8 a.m. Wednesday, starting with surgery on Hambrook, which ended around noon. Shanahan's procedure started around 11 a.m. and ended at 4 p.m.

The two are recovering at the University of Maryland Medical Center. They're just a short walk across the hall from one another.

"I saw him yesterday and just for a minute this morning," Shanahan said Saturday. "He was feeling really bad. He was vomiting a lot. ... He was in so much pain."

Barth said both should be ready to return home within a few days. Hambrook will leave with some soreness and pain and a small scar on his abdomen, Barth said.

"This story is somewhat representative of parents that have a disease that can kill them. … Parents often approach it with a great deal of apprehension when talking to their children, but we try to ask the family that if the shoe was on the other foot, and they were an adult child and their own parent had a life-altering disease, what they would want to do?" Barth said.

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Shanahan and Hambrook said a full Christmas celebration will come once they're both recovered. But mother and son agree this holiday is a special one.


"It's definitely the most important Christmas," Hambrook said.

His mother said she's already received the greatest gift.

"I'm happy, because I really thought that this would be the last Christmas I would ever have," Shanahan said.

"He gave me a gift of life for my Christmas present."