Baby receives liver transplant at 4 weeks old, youngest in Minnesota

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M Health Fairview has one of the oldest transplant programs in the world.

Last fall, they performed a liver transplant on a four-week-old girl, and Elsie Freeman is believed to be the youngest liver transplant patient in Minnesota.

“She was such a fighter,” said her mother Stacie Haverkamp.

In October, Haverkamp delivered Elsie and her brother Ethan at 37 weeks and four days, nearly full term for twins. The babies headed home, the family took newborn photos and spent precious moments with their older sister Nira.

Haverkamp said after they’d been home for three weeks, Elsie abruptly changed.

“All of a sudden, she started looking a little yellow, and then the next day it was darker, and then her eyes were changing color,” said Haverkamp. “She wasn’t jaundice before, and so I was getting a little concerned.”

They rushed Elsie to urgent care and then M Health Fairview Masonic Children’s Hospital.

“Our gut told us we should just get it looked at quickly,” said James Freeman, Elsie’s father. “Next thing you know, there’s every doctor, every nurse, they have her hooked up to every machine, and it’s super scary. We don’t know what to expect.”

Doctors determined Elsie’s liver was failing but couldn’t pinpoint a cause. They informed Haverkamp and Freeman their daughter would need a liver transplant.

“You could sense the urgency in their voice. Let’s do this,” said Freeman.

Transplant surgeon Dr. Srinath Chinnakotla told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that Elsie was placed on the transplant list at status 1A. A match was located within 24 hours.

“With her severity of liver failure, if she didn’t get a liver transplant, her chance of surviving a week were pretty slim,” said Dr. Chinnakotla.

Elsie was only about 7.5 pounds, or three kilograms, when she went into surgery.

“Liver transplantation is a very complex procedure involving the removal of the old liver and then putting the new liver in and being able to do many vascular connections,” said Dr. Chinnakotla. “The tricky part is when the child is only three kilograms. The blood vessels are extremely small in size, so there is no room for error. Everything has to go perfectly.”

He said a team of at least 10 people worked together in the operating room to give Elsie a small piece of a donor’s liver.

With only a 50% chance it would be successful, Elsie overcame the odds and made it through the surgery. Four other surgeries followed.

“If you put a big liver into a smaller person, the liver shrinks over time so what we did in this situation was we had put a slightly larger liver and we did what is called a staged closure,” Dr. Chinnakotla explained. “Within a week, the liver kind of shrunk to the size of the baby, and we were able to close the abdomen.”

He acknowledges the surgery was a risky procedure.

“The team I worked with gave us the encouragement and said we can do this as a team, and I think the team effort is what made the success,” said Dr. Chinnakotla.

Elsie’s parents told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS their daughter’s feisty spirit helped her overcome every obstacle she faced.

“There were plenty of moments when she was hooked up on the machine I think, ‘I don’t know how she could possibly come out of this’ and then she does, and then she gets over another hump, and then the next plateau, the next mountain,” said Freeman. “She just kept surprising everybody.”

They took Elsie home from the hospital in mid-January, after nearly two months at M Health Fairview Masonic Children’s Hospital. She is now thriving.

“I didn’t ever imagine being able to take her home after knowing that she was in liver failure and then to know that there was a procedure that could fix her, and then everything went smooth,” said Haverkamp. “The day that they said ‘Okay, discharge is coming’, it was amazing. I never thought I’d hear the words discharge.”

The family of five is now adjusting to a more normal level of chaos, soaking in every moment together.

“The hope is that she just grows, and the liver grows with her as she gets older, and she gets to live a normal life,” said Haverkamp.

Ten children received liver transplants through M Health Fairview last year, out of a record-number 116 total transplant patients. The healthcare provider told us 98% of those surgeries were successful.

“The main aim of this story is to give hope for children,” said Dr. Chinnakotla. “No matter how sick you are, we work hard, children always get better. For all of those children with liver failure out there, be hopeful. If at least Elsie can make it, you can too.”