In giving part of herself away, Gwendolyn Steele found so much more in the process.
The sudden loss of her father, cousin and friends in rapid succession due to sickness sent Steele in a transformative state of mind.
“I just had an overwhelming feeling of helplessness,” she recalled. “I wanted to do something to help somebody.”
Steele, 49, has always wanted to become a living donor, but never felt as though she had the support to get through surgery and recovery.
Since moving to Culpeper, though, she felt as though found the people to give her strength.
“This whole process has taught me the loves of my life are my friends,” Steele said. “They have showed me so much more care than any mate I’ve ever had.”
To jump start her journey from an idea to eventually University of Chicago Medical Center, Steele joined a Facebook group for living donors to begin to ask questions. It was there she met a woman whose best friend’s sister, Carolyn, was looking for a liver.
Steele was flown out to Chicago — courtesy of Carolyn’s insurance company — to undergo numerous tests to determine their compatibility. Although the women shared a blood type, they differed anatomically.
Although transplants can go forward without a match anatomically, it makes surgery more risky.
Doctors told Steele Carolyn was lucky enough to have a year to find a match and had multiple people being tested to be her donor.
Despite her journey to become Carolyn’s donor coming to a screeching halt, doctors determined
Steele had “a very donatable liver.”
Then came a crazy question. How would she feel about donating to someone else?
Of course, Steele agreed.
Three weeks passed before she got the call. Doctors had found a match.
All at once, Steele began to plan to temporarily relocate her life to Chicago as well as call her in the support system waiting on the sidelines to come to her aid.
On July 22, Steele went into surgery without even knowing the name, age or even the gender of the recipient.
“I just knew they needed my liver,” she said.
Before going under, she recalled, her team of surgeons reassured her no one would blame or shame her if she wanted back out, but Steele stayed.
“I was actually very, very calm going into it,” she recalled. “I just knew it was something I was supposed to be doing, and I felt like I was finally helping someone somewhere.”
After waking up from her six hour surgery where 60% of her liver - the right lobe - was removed, Steele felt different.
“My helplessness had gone away,” she said.
After transitioning out of the intensive care unit, Steele asked her doctors if she could meet the person who would be caring for her liver.
Her doctors agreed and told her they wanted to meet her too.
Just down the hall from Steele’s room was recipient Mindy LeBlanc, a 49-year-old mother of two living outside Chicago.
Steele remembers walking into the hospital room to see LeBlanc and her husband, David.
“Her and her husband just kept thanking me over and over again saying, ‘I don’t know how else to thank you,'” Steele recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know how else to say you’re welcome.’”
Prior to surgery, LeBlanc had two months to live.
“I felt so happy to save a mom,” Steele said.
After leaving the hospital, Steele moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago, her home for the next month as she needed to stay within close proximity to the hospital as her liver began to grow back.
Steele’s support team jumped into action.
Family and friends flew in to help her as she recovered in Chicago while other friends kept an eye on and cleaned her apartment in Culpeper.
After LeBlanc was discharged from the hospital, the family invited Steele over for dinner to meet the rest of her family.
“Meeting her dad was overwhelming because he’s the same age as my dad. He went to Vietnam like my dad, and I just lost mine recently,” Steele recalled. “I was doing this for my dad and then I ended up doing it for her dad.”
In the following days after the meeting, both LaBlanc and her father were set to celebrate their birthdays.
“They both said this was the best present they could ever have in their whole lives,” Steele continued. “It’s completely overwhelming.”
Steele remembered LeBlanc calling her two months post operation to celebrate surpassing her previous life expectancy timeline.
Nearly four months post surgery, Steele said her liver is projected to have fully grown back and LeBlanc has made a full recovery.
“She’ll always be the right half of me, and I’ll always be the left,” Steele said.
In the future, Steele plans to get a tattoo near her scar - which runs from her sternum to her belly button - of the left part of her liver waving goodbye to the right side.
“I learned some amazing lessons I didn’t think I’d learn and, at the same time, I don't feel helpless anymore,” she said.