2017 Transplant and Organ Donation Calendar: Myrna Hirshhaut

Myrna Hirshhaut with her husband Favel Vaisberg

Liver transplant surgery is not a new concept for Myrna Hirshhaut: When she was 15, her mother, Fida, received the gift of life and became the longest living liver recipient in the world. Myrna spent her life in awe of her mother's courage, never suspecting that she would be called upon to undergo her own extraordinary journey.


When she and her husband, Favel Vaisberg, found out his younger sister, Rebeca Vaisberg de Lustgarten, had cancer and desperately needed a liver transplant from a living donor, Favel was determined to be the donor.


So, he and Myrna traveled from their home in Caracas, Venezuela, to University Hospital in Madison - where Rebeca's family friend, transplant surgeon Luis Fernandez, MD, planned to perform the procedure - to undergo extensive testing. But on the second day of testing, Favel found out his liver was the wrong shape, and he was ruled out, as were Rebeca's children, Saul and Monica.


Rebeca's husband Natan also was willing to be the donor, as was Myrna - but only if Natan was unable to donate. Both of them were matches, but on the day before the surgery, Natan discovered he, too, had cancer and needed treatment in addition to his wife. So it was Myrna's turn to step up to the plate. "The easiest thing you can do is to ignore the situation and go home and be with your family," says Myrna, 49. "But if I did that, I wouldn't sleep."


Both Myrna and Rebeca underwent surgery on September 3, 2015. Fernandez removed 70 percent of Myrna's liver and successfully transplanted it in Rebeca's body. Then, the recovery process began. Rebeca and Natan had rented an apartment in Madison when they found out how sick she was, and Myrna and Favel found an apartment in the same building. Several family members came to stay with Rebeca and Natan in the weeks following her surgery, and they cooked for both couples.


"Everyone had to do everything for us," says Myrna. "I couldn't even lift a plate."


Myrna and Favel stayed in Madison a total of four months, leaving their businesses in the hands of others. During that time, the two couples bonded over their shared experience. Once Myrna was feeling better, she started cooking for all of them, and she took long walks every day through downtown Madison to regain her strength.


"I'm not the kind of person who can just sit down and watch the birds," she says. "I always have to be doing something. I got to know every inch of downtown Madison." While they were in Wisconsin, Favel and their son ran the Madison Marathon in November 2015.


Recovery took a long time for Myrna, and she bears the scar to prove it. Still, she can't imagine making any other decision. "I told my husband, what's a scar if you save a life?" she says.


Read Rebeca Vaisberg de Lustgarten's Story