Indiana Township’s Lucas Goeller had days to live. At 2 years old, he was laid up in UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh with a serious liver infection. It was June 2015.
At the time, he was diagnosed with a rare liver disease called biliary atresia. His only shot at survival was a liver donation from a deceased infant, child or young adult.
His mother, Jessica Goeller, had launched a Facebook page aiming to raise awareness about organ donation. She received hundreds of messages of support each day. As she sat with her son in the hospital, she “rather robotically” replied to message after message offering well wishes.
Then came the life-saving message.
“One came through that was a very direct question, something we would only talk about on medical terms with our team: ‘What is his body weight? What is his blood type?’ ” Goeller recalled this week.
She responded to the message: “13.1 kilograms and O negative.”
“Thirty seconds later, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” Goeller said. “I realized: ‘Oh my God, a mother out there somewhere has to be asking because her child is dying.’ Honestly, it was a terrible feeling to know somebody else was suffering like us. The first thing I did was pray that she lived.”
That message came from Lauressa Gillock, a Nebraska woman who was watching her 3-year-old daughter, Olivia Swedberg, die of a tumor on her brain stem. They were in an intensive care unit in Florida, having just gotten off of a cruise they took through Make-A-Wish. Gillock was working to transport her terminally ill daughter back to Nebraska.
Gillock, who also received hundreds of supportive messages from a Facebook page chronicling her daughter’s illness, got a message from a woman who said she felt “compelled by God” to show her the Facebook page about Lucas. Gillock said she saw pictures of Lucas, who was living over a thousand miles away in Indiana Township, and immediately knew she wanted to donate her daughter’s liver to Lucas after her death.
“I put myself in their shoes, and I wanted to help,” Gillock said.
After Olivia’s death, her liver was recovered and shipped from Nebraska to UPMC Children’s Hospital. The donation saved Lucas.
Olivia passed away on June 30, 2015. The six-year anniversary of her organ donation landed on World Social Media Day on Wednesday. Gillock and Goeller spoke face-to-face for the first time via social media to share their story and advocate for organ donation.
The meeting, which was livestreamed, was facilitated by the national organ donation advocacy group Donate Life America and Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE) and Live On Nebraska, organ procurement organizations that were involved in helping with Lucas’s transplant.
“To be able to connect through social media to get that lifesaving organ for Lucas just in time was a miracle,” said Dr. George Mazariegos, chief of pediatric transplantation at UPMC Children’s Hospital and the surgeon who performed the liver transplant operation on Lucas. “And it was so timely, because we didn’t really know how much time we’d have if that didn’t come through for Lucas.”
Gillock donated her daughter’s liver through a direct donation, in which the donor’s family identifies the individual to whom they would like to donate an organ.
“Directed donations are the exception, not the rule,” CORE spokeswoman Katelynn Metz said. Most deceased donations, she said, happen between anonymous groups.
The catch with direct donations, she said, is the donor has to be a match with the recipient.
“That’s what makes this story so miraculous — not only were these two moms connected on Facebook, but also this matched and was able to be a lifesaving gift for Lucas,” Metz said.
Lucas faced some challenges after his transplant but is now growing, getting taller and gaining weight like a healthy child. His mother said that, looking at Lucas now, she would never know he had once been so sick.
“I can’t believe it’s been six years,” Goeller said. “He’s doing great. He’s living life. Organ donation is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s a gift that is given to you every single day that you wake up again.”
Though Goeller and Gillock hadn’t spoken face-to-face until the six-year anniversary of the donation, they have kept in touch through social media. Goeller keeps Gillock updated on milestones in her son’s life, and they hope to one day meet in person.
“Parents, typically with a tragic event, they walk away with nothing, just memories,” Gillock said. “I get to watch people alive because of (Olivia). Her legacy will live on. If Lucas grows up and has kids, that’s because of my daughter.”
Lucas is preparing to enter second grade in the fall. His mother described him as a “wild” child who loves nature, birds and fishing. He loves to explore, Goeller said, and she sometimes finds him climbing trees “higher than I prefer.”
Gillock said her daughter was generous, and she would be happy to know her organ donation saved Lucas’s life. She was interested in gymnastics, sang “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen” every night and always wore dresses, even when it was cold.
Before she died, Olivia and her family took the cruise through Make-A-Wish. She fell ill on the ship, but Gillock said she still wanted her daughter to see the beach and go swimming with the dolphins. She was mostly unresponsive the day she was supposed to go swimming with dolphins, Gillock said. Then she perked up and began kicking and splashing once she got in the water.
“She was so happy with the dolphins,” Gillock said. “That was my last memory with her. We were in the ICU the next day.”
Olivia drew a picture of a dolphin shortly before her death.
Just a few days later, Lucas received her liver. Soon after the transplant, he began saying he loved dolphins, and he still has an affinity for them today, Goeller said.
The mothers agree there is a deep bond between Olivia and Lucas — and a strong connection between their families.
“I think this is far bigger than we can put words to,” Gillock said, adding that she knows Lucas loves chocolate milk, which was Olivia’s favorite. “I believe there’s far more of a connection,” she said.
Goeller said the organ donation was “nothing but miraculous.”
Lucas is too young to fully understand the magnitude of an organ transplant, though he is learning more about it as he grows older, Goeller said.
“He knows that he had a transplant, and we talk about it and we talk about Olivia,” Goeller said.
Gillock said watching her daughter live on through Lucas has helped her heal, and she urged everyone to consider organ donation.
“It made it easier knowing that she was going to give back to somebody,” Gillock said.
During Wednesday’s presentation, Mazariegos said “almost any” healthy adult can be a living organ donor, and most people also can be candidates for deceased donations.
Only about half of Pennsylvanians are organ donors, Metz said, and more than 100,000 people nationwide are awaiting an organ transplant. Each organ donor can save up to eight lives.
“There are so many reasons to be an organ donor, but I can’t think of a single reason not to be an organ donor,” Metz said.
Wednesday’s event concluded with a brief prerecorded message from Lucas.
“I want to say thank you to my angel, Olivia,” he said.
To register as an organ donor, visit registerme.org/core.
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