Austin Westmeyer and his younger sister, Samantha Westmeyer, have always been close, but now they have an even closer bond.
On April 21, Samantha donated 69% of her liver to Austin, who has suffered from ulcerative colitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis since entering first year at college.
“We have always been close” said Austin Westmeyer, a 2013 graduate of Minot High School who now lives in Minneapolis in a house he shares with his sister, who graduated from Minot High School in 2014. “… I feel like it’s pretty funny and I should have seen it coming as soon as I got sick that Samantha would be the one to give me part of her liver one day.” I think it’s really cool and it’s just one more way to bond and be even closer because we now share a part of the body.
Samantha Westmeyer was happy to be able to help her brother.
“It was really good (to be able to help Austin)”, she said, although she said she was also a little afraid of having major surgery.
Samantha was also happy to be the one who was able to donate part of her liver in place of other family members. She thinks it would have been more difficult to wait to see how her family members were doing during the hours of waiting for the transplant to be completed.
Her parents, Trent and Randi Westmeyer from Minot, said the day of the transplant was one of the worst days of their lives because it was so scary and stressful. Austin and Samantha are their only children.
Austin had complications after the transplant and had to undergo several more surgeries in the hours and days that followed. He spent nearly a month in the hospital after recovering.
Austin and Samantha both constantly wondered how the other was doing when they woke up from the operation. They held hands when Samantha was finally able to visit her brother in his hospital room.
Their mother was able to stay with Austin in the hospital after the operation, while their father was able to stay with Samantha in the hospital and during her recovery at home. After Samantha was released from the hospital and her father brought her home, they were unable to visit the hospital again due to COVID-19 restrictions. Each patient is entitled to one guest from the hospital. Austin Westmeyer said it could have been even worse if he had to undergo the operation a year ago, when patients were not allowed to receive visits.
Austin and Samantha’s medical expenses were covered by Austin’s health insurance. The family are also aware that they are fortunate enough to be able to spend time together during the recovery process. Not all families in these circumstances have as much family or financial support. They also received a lot of support from people here in Minot, some of whom raised money for family expenses through a Facebook fundraiser.
Months later, things start to feel more normal. Samantha Westmeyer, who spent about a week in the hospital after the operation, said she still gets tired easily because it takes a lot of energy to regrow a liver after a transplant. His liver will soon return to its normal size. Austin Westmeyer has been discharged home with 17 prescriptions and returns to the clinic regularly for checkups and blood tests. He will take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life, but eventually the number of drugs will become more manageable.
Austin, who works in marketing and sales, was laid off amid the COVID-19 pandemic, had to delay his job search during his health battle, but said he hopes to return to work this autumn. Samantha Westmeyer is a banker at Associated Bank. They continue to live together in Minneapolis.
Austin and Samantha also want to stress the need for organ donation.
Live organ donation is rarer in the United States than in other countries. They said nowhere in North Dakota is capable of doing them. Austin’s transplant was the fourth performed this year at the University of Minnesota – East Bank Medical Center.
Donations using livers from deceased donors are more common. Austin said one of his doctors in Minneapolis told him that two liver donations from deceased donors recently came from the Minot area.
Austin’s autoimmune disease causes narrowing of the bile ducts and ultimately is said to have caused his liver to fail when doctors were no longer able to treat the disease.
Austin and his family had long known that a liver transplant might one day be needed, but they hoped it might not be until he was in his 30s or early 40s.
The need became urgent when, in February, Austin spent 23 days in the hospital in two separate hospital stays. Her doctors told her it was time to consider a liver transplant. Her condition was not yet serious enough to put her on a list for a deceased donor liver transplant. A living donor was therefore his best option.
A healthy, living person who fits well can donate part of the liver. The liver, a regenerative organ, can return to its original size in three months.
Austin’s family were all tested, but none, except Samantha, was a good match. It is difficult to find a suitable organ donor. Siblings only have a 25 percent chance of matching. Even if a person is compatible, this will only be possible if the donor is in excellent health and young enough. Fortunately, Samantha was healthy, young and a good match for the brother she is so close to.
The family also said organ donations from deceased donors aged 90 can save a young person’s life. It is enough for the liver to be healthy.