By Melissa Grant
Six-year-old Jake Shiels had only two days left on life support when his mum gave him an incredible life-saving gift.
The Cranbourne North boy was battling a mystery virus that had caused his liver to fail and he needed a transplant to have any chance of surviving.
Time was running out to find a donor when his mum, Claire DeStratis, discovered she was compatible but donating part of her liver meant risking her own life.
“The surgeons said ‘look, one in four you’re going to have a major complication and one in 200 don’t survive the surgery’,” the mum of three said.
“That was probably one of the things that scared me the most. But I knew that Jake was going to get what he needed regardless of anything that happened to me.
“He wasn’t going to get it any other way because they couldn’t find a donor and they could only keep him on life support for a maximum of five days.”
The nightmare ordeal started in February this year, less than two weeks after Jake returned to school.
All of a sudden the usually healthy and happy boy felt extremely ill.
“We thought he had gastro but within 24 hours of him vomiting his eyes turned yellow and I knew that wasn’t normal so I rushed him to our local GP,” Claire recalled.
Claire ended up taking Jake to the emergency department at the Monash Medical Centre in Clayton.
The youngster’s skin had also turned yellow and blood tests revealed he had a viral hepatitis.
Two weeks of tests failed to uncover what exactly the virus was, but it was clear that his immune system had begun attacking his liver.
“They said ‘we are going to have to transport him to the RCH (Royal Children’s Hospital) because his liver is failing. He’s going to be going to the transplant ward and he’s going to need a liver transplant’,” Claire explained.
“There was no stopping the onslaught of it. There was no minimising the symptoms or anything like that, his liver was failing.
“I watched him deteriorate over 11 days… my heart was just breaking.”
At the RCH, Claire and her partner Beau met with transplant surgeons and Jake was put on transplant waiting lists in Australia and New Zealand.
Due to the urgency of the situation, both Claire and Beau underwent tests to see if it was possible one of them could donate part of their liver.
Claire was watching her son on life support when a surgeon called to inform her she was a match.
The following day she was admitted to the Austin Hospital for a six-hour surgery to retrieve 20 per cent of her liver. Under police escort, the partial liver was then rushed to the Royal Children’s Hospital for Jake’s 12-hour transplant surgery.
Fortunately Jake responded well to the transplant, with his skin returning to a healthier colour in less than 24 hours.
The entire time, Beau was with Jake while the couple’s daughters Mia and Evie were cared for by their aunt and grandmother. Claire’s workplace, the Cranbourne RSL, rallied to raise over $17,000 while a GoFundMe raised more than $10,000 for the couple.
“Our family and friends showed such great support financially,” Claire said. “We were able to put all our energy into Jake’s recovery and my recovery without the financial worry.”
Claire spent an entire week laying in a hospital bed wondering how her little boy was faring.
When the pair finally reunited Jake’s face lit up and he proudly pointed to the scar on his stomach.
“I said to him, ‘mum has one too honey’,” Claire said.
Claire has recovered well and it is believed her liver has regrown and returned to its pre-surgery size.
Jake had some complications following his life-saving surgery – his lung collapsed and a blood clot that formed on his liver had to be removed.
After the transplant, it was discovered that Jake’s mystery illness was slapped cheek, a virus he previously caught and fought off but had caused an immune response so heightened it attacked the liver.
Jake will take immunosuppressive medication for the rest of his life and is on a low-fat diet to ensure his liver isn’t under undue pressure.
Apart from that it’s been pretty smooth sailing post-surgery for Jake, who celebrated his 7th birthday in October.
“You look at him today and you wouldn’t even think he has had an organ transplant,” Claire said.
“He is such a good kid and he is such a fighter. Even four of five days after the transplant he was trying to get up and walk… he just took it all in his stride.”
Claire is eternally grateful to the talented surgeons who performed the life saving transplant surgeries.
“Without them and the knowledge they have we wouldn’t be where we are today.
“Jake was operated on for 12 hours, I was operated on for six hours – that’s incredible.
“I can’t thank them enough.”
To register to become an organ and tissue donor, visit donatelife.gov.au