Pediatric liver transplant

Ephraim's life is saved by a liver transplant from his father

Ephraim and his father, Josiah
Ephraim and his father, Josiah

Ask Ephraim Vilmin about his liver transplant, and the 6-year-old will tell you in no uncertain terms that it was not the highlight of his life.

“I wish it didn’t even happen in the first place,” he declares emphatically, even as his parents silently thank their lucky stars that he was able to receive a transplant.

Because without it, the Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, boy probably wouldn’t be alive today.

Ephraim’s health problems began just before Thanksgiving 2020, when he started showing symptoms of a cold and of jaundice. After he lost his appetite and the whites of his eyes turned yellow, his parents brought him to the emergency room. Doctors at the local hospital transferred him to American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison via ambulance in the middle of the night.

The little boy had developed acute liver failure from a suspected virus, and for two weeks, doctors ran test after test as they tried to determine what had caused the virus—and how they could best treat him. As Ephraim became sicker and sicker, his medical team decided to put him on the transplant wait list. But he would receive a transplant quickest, they told his parents, if he had a living donor. UW Health is a certified living liver donation center, so Ephraim’s dad, Josiah, stepped up for testing. Josiah already knew he had the same blood type as Ephraim, and further testing confirmed he would be a good match.

“His lab results were coming back pretty bad, and there were no deceased donor organs available that would work,” says Ephraim’s mother, Connie. “We needed to have Josiah go through the living donation process very quickly.”

Indeed, just 24 hours after Josiah started the testing process, he and Ephraim were wheeled into separate operating rooms, where UW Health transplant surgeons removed part of Josiah’s liver and placed it in Ephraim’s body.

The transplant saved Ephraim’s life. However, it would be a long time before the Vilmins would be able to exhale.

Ephraim, smiling outside.

Another health problem

After his surgery, Ephraim’s lab results were slowly returning to normal, however, just before Christmas they discovered he was suffering from a complication called aplastic anemia that can occur with acute liver failure that is caused by a virus. His bone marrow wasn’t working properly, so they had to put him on even more medications. “It was more than a setback, because if the treatment didn’t work, Ephraim would need a bone marrow transplant,” says Josiah.

As he began feeling better, Ephraim rode a tricycle up and down the halls of the cancer treatment unit at the hospital. His lab results still weren’t great, but after 65 days in the hospital, he returned home at the end of January 2021. He had two more hospitalizations later in 2021 because he developed a fever—a condition that can be very dangerous for a boy in his condition.

Near the end of 2021, the Vilmins were relieved to see Ephraim continuing to improve. He no longer required treatment for aplastic anemia, and the number of medications he took every day dropped from 12 to one. They decided to enroll him in a virtual 1st grade class so he wouldn’t be exposed to other children while COVID-19 still raged through the United States.

While he’s not thrilled to be attending school at home, Ephraim is excelling in his classes and finally getting the opportunity to enjoy life with his new liver. “He’s fantastic,” says Josiah. “If you saw him, you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong with him. He’s perfect in every way.”

And Josiah is feeling good, too. Both he and Connie appreciate the care their family received at UW Health—and the fact that living liver donation was even an option for them in the first place. “I don’t think Ephraim would be here if we didn’t have the option of a living donor,” says Connie.