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Liver transplant creates "lifelong bond" between two Old Lyme residents

Old Lyme — Ryan Lee had only met Rob Wallace a couple of times, when he decided to become his liver donor.

The two town residents now share a "lifelong bond."

As a project for his job at a marketing agency, Lee had been helping with a website and Facebook page to share Wallace's story about his search for a live liver donor, after he was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2015. A community of well wishers built around the page, and Lee said he felt the messages of positivity could carry Rob and his wife, Lori, and their three children through some of their darker days and be a source of support.

Lee soon began to pay closer attention to the details of the project and realized he was a blood type match for Wallace.

Lee raised the possibility of being a liver donor one night to his wife, Melanie, who encouraged him to call the Yale-New Haven Transplantation Center. He called the next day.

"The world needs more positivity ... and I've always wanted to know that I lived my life with purpose," Lee said about his decision. "Here was an opportunity."

Lee, 40, said he went through a rigorous screening and testing process — both physical and psychological — before being approved to donate part of his liver to Wallace, 53, who has a glass studio in Old Saybrook. The surgery took place June 28 at Yale-New Haven.

According to the American Transplant Foundation's website, a living liver transplant entails an individual donating a portion of a healthy liver to a recipient whose own liver is removed during surgery. Then, over the course of about two months, "the remaining and transplanted parts of the donor liver grow to normal size, providing normal long-term liver function for the donor and the recipient." The foundation says that a liver donated from a living person "typically lasts longer than a liver from a deceased donor."

More than 1,400 people in the United States die each year waiting for a liver transplant, due to a shortage of available organs, the foundation states.

As Lee recovered in the Intensive Care Unit after the surgery, his mind was on Wallace.

"Every single minute all Ryan wanted to do was see Rob, " said Lori Wallace.

Three months after the surgery, Wallace said he is feeling much better.

"The reason I'm doing this well, and I rebounded so well is because of a living donor," he said, adding that a liver from a living donor makes a big difference to the recipient's recovery and longevity.

Lee said the first 24 hours after surgery were the most difficult for him, as he was very sore. As he recovered at home, he was still able to get up and walk around, but wasn't allowed to lift more than five pounds for six weeks. His 4-year-old son, Parker, was very gentle and reminded his father not to pick him up.

After a little over five weeks, he went from feeling exhausted to back to normal. He was back to work in about two months.

Now, three months after the surgery, Lee said he considers the scar from the incision from the surgery as a "trophy." He plans to run a half-marathon in two weeks.

Lee said he always had a feeling that all the pieces would fall into place to allow him to be a living donor. 

During the recovery process, his employers, Ralph Guardiano and John Visgilio, the principals of Overabove, a marketing agency in Essex, paid his salary for the time he was out of work. Community members brought him dinner, took care of his lawn, and stopped by to give him hugs.

"To me, it's still incredible how much people came together as part of this," Lee said.

Wallace agreed that they were fortunate and called the outpouring of support from Old Lyme "unbelievable."

Melanie Lee said she was overwhelmed by the support from family, friends, Wallace's friends and the Old Lyme community.

"We knew going in to this that donating a major organ is a selfless thing to do for someone," she wrote in an email. "What we didn't know is the unexpected rewards we would receive like having a new extended family with the Wallaces. They are such a beautiful family and we are so lucky that Ryan was his match. We just love them so much."

Lee said that part of his inspiration for being a donor was that he watched his mother lose her brother and his cousins lose their father, after his uncle died at age 55 of colon cancer and left behind five children.

Becoming a donor was a way to remember his uncle and also help another family, so that three children will have their dad at sports games, graduations, and their weddings someday, he said.

Lee is writing a blog detailing his experience to raise awareness about living donors and help other potential donors understand the process.

With the way people supported his own family during the experience, he said he now sees more positivity in the world.

"It's incredibly rewarding to do this. I can't state it enough," he said. "I don't regret it for a second, not once, not even when I was in the worst pain of all of this did I regret it for one second. I wish I could do it again, honestly."

Wallace said he now has a second chance on life and wants to make it count. He said he wants to give back a little more, once he fully heals, and see how he can be an advocate for living donors.

"I'm more humbled by the experience that there's good people in the world when everything looks so bleak at times," said Wallace. He thought he would eventually receive a liver donation from a deceased person, but never thought he would receive a liver from a live donor.

"It's a lifelong bond," he said.


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