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Patient Stories

Couple Achieves Milestone As Husband Donates Part Of Liver To His Wife

Sep. 10, 2020

In 2010, Kelli Estep’s life changed forever. The nurse from Lincoln County, West Virginia discovered that she would eventually need a liver transplant.


Ten years later, she had the lifesaving transplant at UC Health thanks to a generous gift from an unlikely donor – her husband, James.

Kelli first noticed a change when she started having severe abdominal pain. The pain was so unbearable that she went to the emergency department at a local hospital. Her primary care physician then recommended she see a hematologist, a doctor who specializes in conditions in the blood and immune system.

The hematologist performed a PET (positron emission tomography) scan to check for any possible diseases. Results from a liver biopsy revealed that Kelli had stage 3 cirrhosis, a form of advanced liver disease. Kelli eventually was going to need a transplant.

Because there was not a gastroenterologist, a liver specialist, close to her in West Virginia, Kelli began traveling to a health system out of state every three months for consultation.

Kelli was placed on the national transplant list but likely would not have the transplant until her Model for End-stage Liver Disease (MELD) score increased.

“As the years went on, I just kept getting sicker, but my MELD score didn’t show it, so my doctor told me about the possibility of a living donor transplant,” Kelli said.

A living donor liver transplant is another option for patients who need to have a transplant but may not be able to wait for a deceased donor match. It is possible Kelli would not have been able to make it to that point.

James decided to go through testing to see if he would be eligible to donate part of his liver to his wife.

He was a perfect match.

Married to Kelli for 19 years, James did not hesitate to make the decision to help her.

“I told her that if I was a match, I would donate. I wanted to help save my wife’s life,” James said.

Kelli and James decided to come to UC Health, Greater Cincinnati’s leader in compassionate, innovative liver expertise.

“I met someone who had a transplant there, and they told me how great the doctors are. So that’s one of the reasons why we chose Cincinnati in the first place,” Kelli said.

UC Health is the first health system in Greater Cincinnati to offer living donor transplants, which gives more hope to patients and their families.

Kelli and James made the three-hour trip from their hometown in West Virginia to Cincinnati to see Shimul Shah, MD, UC Health surgeon and the James and Catherine Orr Endowed Chair in Liver Transplantation, director of the Division of Transplantation and professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

“Our goal is to ensure that patients never have to leave Cincinnati to receive the transplant care they need. Living donor liver transplants give patients another option if their condition continues to decline and they’d prefer not to wait on the transplant list,” Dr. Shah said.

In August 2020, Kelli and James went through final testing to prepare for the transplant procedure. Kelli was nervous and worried about leaving their three teenage children back home. James, however, remained calm and collected.

“I was cool as a cucumber. I just wanted to get it over with,” James said.

A Milestone Achievement

Early in the morning on Aug. 10, 2020, the Estep couple participated in the first adult living donor liver transplant in Greater Cincinnati, a major milestone achievement in transplant surgery. Dr. Shah and Cutler Quillin, MD, UC Health surgeon and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the UC College of Medicine, performed Kelli’s transplant.

“James’ heroism and courage is so inspiring. He never hesitated to donate part of his liver to his wife. His generosity saved her life,” Dr. Shah said.

Hours later, Kelli and James woke up in the intensive care unit (ICU). Although Kelli felt a little fatigue, she felt better than she had in years. James also felt great, feeling little effects from the surgery.

“I have hardly had any pain. The nurses in the ICU came in and checked to see what my pain level was, and I always remember saying that it was low,” James said.

Kelli and James returned home only days apart, both happy to return to their children. It was a challenge at first for Kelli without assistance from her caregivers, but she quickly adjusted.

“UC Health will continue to offer world-class care in the region by performing these life-changing procedures,” Dr. Quillin said. “Kelli now has the opportunity to return to her normal life.”

It has been nearly a month since the transplant, and the Estep couple is doing well. They continue to come to UC Health for follow-up appointments. Despite how daunting a transplant procedure can feel, Kelli and James are thrilled to be the first to participate in a living donor liver transplant in Cincinnati.

“It was very exciting. We wanted to be the first so we could say we are the first. Our care team at UC Health knew what they were doing. We were never worried about that,” Kelli and James said.

UC Health’s World-Class Transplant Care

Kelli and James were never worried about having this procedure because of the care they received from Dr. Shah, Dr. Quillin and the rest of their transplant team.

“The whole team, starting with the transplant coordinator, pre-transplant coordinator and the rest of the staff were wonderful,” Kelli said. “The doctors always took great care of me. All the way through the process, everything was great. All of my care was excellent.”

James offered similar sentiments throughout his journey before and after the transplant. “The whole team, especially in the ICU, was very professional and organized,” he said. “It was the best I have been treated by any nursing staff.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the country, Kelli and James wanted to go through with the surgery. They felt safe throughout their entire stay at UC Medical Center and during their post-transplant appointments at the Hoxworth Building.

Moving into the future, Kelli and James look forward to returning to their normal lives, despite the challenges from COVID-19. Both plan to go back to their jobs once they have fully recovered and can handle the hours and physical demands required.

When asked if they would recommend their West Virginia friends and neighbors make the trip to UC Health for transplant care, Kelli and James enthusiastically said, “Yes!”

They also strongly encourage other patients and their families to consider living donor liver transplant surgery. Thanks to UC Health’s transplant team, Kelli and James will be able to celebrate their 20th anniversary and many more.