Pre-Med Student McMillan Makes a Difference as Live Liver Donor

Mike Morlacci

posted December 07, 2017


Shauna McMillan thrives in caring environments where she can make a difference as:

  • a mother of three;
  • a Conemaugh Health Systems employee; and
  • a pre-med student at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

 donor

Pitt-Johnstown pre-med student and live liver donor Shauna McMillan (seated) and transplant recipient Peggy Caruso. 
Photo courtesy of The Indiana Gazette

However, a selfless act this past July went beyond caring when she made a significant difference as:

  • a live liver donor.

While reading The Indiana Gazette’s online edition in May, she saw a story and photo about Peggy Caruso, of Blairsville, and her search for a live liver donor.

“When I first read the article describing Peggy’s predicament, I wanted to know more about the process,” Shauna said. “If I am healthy enough, and my employer will allow me the time off to heal, then I would be at her service. I couldn't imagine living like, (thinking) ‘This is my last Thanksgiving. This is my last Christmas.’ And so on. 

“If I could turn the grief around for her and her family, nothing would stop me. Once I found out what the operation entails and that my manager, Ashley Zaman, excitedly approved my leave to help Peggy, I wanted to do this more than anything.”

Peggy was diagnosed with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, a disease that causes liver inflammation that can become worse and cause scarring of the liver, which leads to cirrhosis. She developed symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy, which occurs when high levels of poisons, including ammonia, build up and the liver is no longer capable of filtering the substances, which can cause serious complications. Peggy said seizures caused short-term memory loss.

She was battling for her life.

Liver transplant candidates are assessed through a Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score, which determines their priority on the transplant waiting list. In Peggy’s situation, her score was never high enough to get on the list for a deceased person’s liver. She needed a living donor, someone willing to give her a portion of their own healthy liver. Family members weren’t able to donate, so they looked for ways through the media to let others know about her desperate need.

And then, Shauna read that online story.

Shauna was evaluated at UPMC Thomas Starzl Transplant Center in Pittsburgh and approved. Two months later, the results were a life-saving.

“My advice for anyone considering live liver donation is to make the call,” Shauna said. “You hold the power to save another person's life. And the cost is such a small price to pay for bringing hope to another family.”

That hope arrived for the Carusos.

“I’m so blessed to have Shauna come into my life,” Peggy said.

“I feel like I had something to give and she was in need,” Shauna said. “The man upstairs did all the work here; he gave me this healthy liver and he brought us together.”

Shauna’s desire to make a difference extends for about as far back as she can remember – “I wore a plastic stethoscope when I was little for years,” she recalled – and extends to her digital presence as well. In 2012, she founded the Friendly Neighbors Facebook page, which connects those in need with those who wish to help.

“I was helping senior citizens on my street with shoveling snow and getting their mail for them,” she said. Word of the good deeds spread rapidly. “Other neighbors started to follow suit. We now collect donations and provide other resources to fire victims, domestic abuse victims, and those in need of food and clothing.” 

The page, which now spans Cambria, Westmoreland, Indiana, Armstrong, and Somerset counties, features a meme carrying one of famed cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead’s most notable quotes: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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