Just a few weeks after much of the nation shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Christian and Sarah Schartner’s 2-month-old son, Calvin, became very ill.
Only an hour after Calvin’s pediatrician ordered laboratory tests to figure out what was wrong, he directed them to head immediately to American Family Children’s Hospital (AFCH) in Madison, Wisconsin. Calvin was in acute liver failure.
The next few days were a blur as the Schartners juggled finding emergency care for Calvin’s 2-year-old brother, Clayton, in the middle of a pandemic and trying to digest the dire news their doctors were giving them. Calvin needed a liver transplant. He was so sick he jumped right to the top of the transplant wait list. But because it was April 2020 and the pandemic- at that time- had dramatically reduced organ donation, it was going to be extremely difficult to find a deceased donor for him. “We were confined to Calvin’s little room in the hospital,” says Sarah, “trying to cherish every moment we could, because we didn’t know if our son was going to die.”
As Calvin’s health rapidly declined, doctors at the UW Health Liver Transplant Program recommended the Schartners try to find a living liver donor. Neither Christian nor Sarah qualified. Christian was too large to donate even a part of his liver to an infant, and Sarah had recently given birth. So, they put out a request on Facebook—and were stunned when more than 200 applicants wanted to be considered. “The transplant team was screening applicants around the clock,” says Sarah.
Then, at the end of April, the Schartners received word that a liver from a deceased donor was a perfect match for Calvin. He received the gift of life on April 27, taking the first step on a long road to healing and growing.
Over the course of Calvin’s illness and recovery, he was in the hospital for seven weeks. During that time, Christian and Sarah formed strong bonds with the caring staff at AFCH, especially Calvin’s liver transplant team including his nurses in the PICU and on the 5th floor, his nutritionist, his transplant nurse coordinator Beth Gerndt-Spaith, his transplant hepatologist Dr. Katryn Furuya, medical director of liver transplantation and his surgeon and surgical director of liver transplantation, Dr. Tony D’Alessandro. “The team we worked with felt like family to us,” says Sarah. “They were by our sides around the clock. I felt like they were on top of his case and fighting for him.”
Now, the Schartners are back to living their lives—but very carefully. In addition to managing his medications and becoming his caregivers at home in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, they must be careful to keep the coronavirus out of their household. Because Calvin is immunocompromised, the illness could be fatal for him. They take great precautions in their jobs—Sarah as a 2nd grade teacher and Christian as a Realtor.
They are especially grateful for all the support they have received—from neighbors who have organized meals for them, to strangers who offered to pay for flights if they found a living donor, to other parents whose children have had liver transplants and reached out. “There’s overwhelming love and support in this world,” says Sarah.
And in the meantime, Calvin is busy becoming the person he is supposed to be. “He’s a very chatty little boy who adores his big brother,” says Sarah. “I feel like we finally get to enjoy having a baby in our house, and not just have to worry about all his medical needs.”