Monica O’Brien is celebrating the gift of life.
The 33-year-old Burbank resident has survived three liver transplants and despite the odds, gave birth to a daughter in July.
O’Brien was born with hepatitis C but wasn’t diagnosed until after high school, she said.
“I had flu-like symptoms for the first 22 years of my life,” she said. “Doctors didn’t know why the liver wasn’t functioning.”
O’Brien was tested for hepatitis C mainly to rule out the illness as she didn’t fall into the categories that normally cause it, such as blood transfusions or intravenous drug use.
Her first transplant was a couple of months after her 23rd birthday — 10 years ago. Her aunt Susan Dinovo, her mother’s sister, was the donor.
The women recently honored the anniversary of the surgery, Sept. 28, 2000, with Dinovo making a visit to meet O’Brien’s newest addition to the family — Meaghan, who was born on July 24.
“I cried — it’s just so miraculous that she’s here,” Dinovo said. “Looking back on what Monica’s been through and where she was 10 years ago — what an incredible miracle Meaghan is.”
Two specialists told O’Brien that she wouldn’t be able to conceive.
“It was definitely a surprise,” she said. “We tried for five years and were happily surprised when we were able to.”
The smile on her husband, Michael O’Brien, never left his face, she added. They also have a 12-year-old son Charlie, to whom O’Brien gave birth before her surgeries.
During the transplant procedure, between 60% and 70% of Dinovo’s liver had been given to O’Brien.
“And both regenerated completely within six weeks, which is totally amazing,” O’Brien said.
Three family members were matches for O’Brien, Dinovo said, but the first two didn’t work out.
O’Brien had been in the hospital for a while and close to death when Dinovo came for the match test. But Dinovo felt that God was leading her to become the donor.
“From a donor’s standpoint, it was more difficult for my husband, John — he was a mess,” Dinovo said.
They have five children of their own.
“I told him, you are the one who taught me that ‘God first, yourself second, then your spouse,’ and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m being called to do this.”
Both came through the surgery fine, but O’Brien suffered a complication from a liver test in 2006. She received an emergency liver transplant, but it was only a bridge. It kept her alive from February to November, and then she received her third liver transplant, she said.
For O’Brien, she got her life back, and now she is an ambassador for the Department of Motor Vehicles, spreading the word for people to become organ donors and have that indicated on their driver’s licenses.
“I tell people my stories,” O’Brien said. “There is a lack of awareness that transplants are needed for people of all ages and demographics.”
Many people think liver transplants happen only to those who suffer from alcoholism, she said, but that’s not always the case.
“There is a lot of inaccurate information out there, so I try to set the record straight and give transplantation a face, and help people realize leaving those organs behind can save up to nine lives,” O’Brien said. “One person has a lot of power in the gift. It’s so amazing.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed legislation to create the nation’s first living donor registry for kidney transplants and increase organ donation opportunities for Californians, said Bryan Stewart, president of Donate Life California, which administers the state-authorized organ and tissue donor registry.
In California, more than 20,000 patients are waiting for organ transplants, he said. About 80% are awaiting kidney transplants, which has the greatest need due to illnesses like hypertension, high blood pressure and diabetes. About 15% are waiting for a liver and the remaining are waiting for hearts, lungs and pancreas.
“The legislation authorizes the creation of a living donor registry for the state of California, and the goal is to expand the ranks of living donors beyond family members and close friends so strangers can donate to strangers more often,” Stewart said.