2017 Transplant and Organ Donation Calendar: Rebeca Vaisberg de Lustgarten

Rebeca Vaisberg de Lustgarten (fourth from left) with her husband Natan, her brother Favel Vaisberg, sister-in-law and liver donor Myrna Hirshhaut and Dr. Luis Fernandez.

Some say family is a warm blanket that surrounds us when we are most vulnerable.


For Rebeca Vaisberg de Lustgarten of Caracas, Venezuela, that aphorism was never more evident than when she needed a liver transplant to fight cancer in the bial duct in 2015.


Her husband; her brother, Favel; and her children, Saul and Monica, clamored for the opportunity to donate part of their liver to her, but her sister-in-law, Myrna Hirshhaut, ultimately gave her the gift of life.


"I wish everybody could have a family like ours," says Rebeca, 54. "Each and every one of them has been so supportive."


In May 2015, Rebeca first noticed her skin was becoming yellow. Her husband Natan's brother, Leonardo, a neurosurgeon, helped her navigate the world of specialists until she ultimately discovered she had cancer in the bial duct. He brought her to University Hospital in Madison to see an old medical school classmate, transplant surgeon Luis Fernandez, MD, who told Rebeca her best chance at survival was to receive a liver transplant from a living donor.


"Because of the way organs are allocated," explains Dr. Fernandez, "Rebeca would have had to wait about a year for a new liver. She would not have been able to live that long."


Rebeca began undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments at University Hospital while specialists in the UW Health Transplant Program tested potential donors. Natan was set to be a donor ... until he discovered he had a soft tissue sarcoma attached to his kidney and needed to undergo a surgery of his own. While Rebeca was recovering from her transplant, he was healing, too. "He was joking with Dr. Fernandez that we should have a hospital room with a king-sized bed," says Rebeca.


Natan and Rebeca rented an apartment big enough to house all the family members and friends who came to care for them while she recovered. Dr. Fernandez and his wife, Sandra, also became like family to the couple who were still adjusting to life far from home.


"I am so grateful to both of them," says Rebeca. "Not only is he a great physician and surgeon, but a great human being. And Sandra has taken great care of me, always calling to check up on me."


Rebeca and Myrna have become much closer through the transplant process. "There are no words to thank her for what she did," says Rebeca. "She went through so much and put her own life at risk."


Read Myrna Hirshhaut's Story