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Woman who had liver transplant at just five days old reunites with hero surgeon 20 years later

They meet for the first time in 20 years – a remarkable transplant surgeonand a grateful young patient who together set a world record that still stands today.

When Professor Mohamed Rela first set eyes on Baebhen Schutkke in 1997 she was only five days old – and on the brink of death.

 She had been born with a rare genetic disorder that was poisoning her liver .

Parents Ita and Jurgen had already suffered the grief of seeing the condition kill two sons.

 Now it looked as if they might lose their third child in three years.
Baebhen Schuttke during her medical ordeal as a baby 20 years ago(Image: Martyn Halle)
Ita Shuttker with Aodhbha and her baby daughter Baeben
Baebhen Schuttke with her family at the time of her transplant(Image: Martyn Halle)
Ita Shuttker and her five month old baby daughter Baebhen(Image: Reuters)

But Prof Rela had other ideas. A matching donor liver was ­available right then. So he took a pioneering clinical decision that would make Baebhen the youngest patient to receive a liver transplant.

The micro-surgery operation made headlines around the world.

 Two decades later their reunion took place in the ward next to the theatre where it all happened at London’s King’s College Hospital.

Prof Rela, who has performed hundreds of liver transplants in a 30-year career, said: “This is an ­operation I will never forget. If we hadn’t have operated she would have died. I didn’t have time to think about the risks.

Prof. Mohamed Rela in the theatre 20 years ago
Baebhen Schuttke (centre) some of the staff who were present for her liver transplant 20 years ago(Image: Nicholas Bowman/Sunday Mirror)

“And it never occurred to me that she would be the youngest in the world until someone ­suggested that possibility a few weeks later.”

Baebhen, a law student, said: “It has been so amazing to come back to where my life was saved all those years ago. It wouldn’t have been possible without the parents of a tragic boy donating his liver and the skills of Prof Rela and his team.”

Gazing at her, the smiling ­professor said: “She is fine, fit and healthy and an amazing advert for the longevity of transplants.

“Patients worry their liver will wear out after five or ten years. If you avoid the problems of rejection the future is good.”

But back in 1997 the future looked bleak for the Schuttke family.

Mum Ita, then 30, and husband Jurgen, 33, already had a healthy five year-old, Aodhbha.

But their next baby Lucas, and then the ­following year Reuben, both died within weeks from neo-natal haemachromatosis, which causes a fatal build up of iron in the liver.

Now Baebhen, born two weeks early at a Dublin maternity hospital, also had the condition.

Jurgen, 53, a computer engineer, said: “You can only tell if it is there by testing in the later stages of pregnancy.

At first everything seemed all right, but a week before Baebhen was born they detected haemo­chromatosis in blood tests.”

Baebhen Schuttke with transplant tot Katherine Bell and her mother Olga Bukrejeva(Image: Nicholas Bowman/Sunday Mirror)
Both parents knew by then her only chance was King’s College in London.

After they lost baby Lucas they discovered online that the hospital might have a treatment that would remove the toxic levels of iron.

So when second son Reuben was diagnosed in the womb, Ita was admitted there for the birth – only for him to die from sepsis at four weeks after ­complications. With Baebhen, Doctors in Dublin consulted with King’s.

She was transferred in an incubator to London just as the liver of a ten-year-old boy who’d died in an accident became ­available.

King’s liver paediatrician Prof Giorgina Miele-Vergani, 71, who had treated Reuben, said: “We knew we had to try something ­different to avert another tragedy for this family.”

Ita said: “We were told Baebhen was heading for the theatre in four hours if we agreed.

Prof Rela, who has performed hundreds of liver transplants in a 30-year career, said: “This is an operation I will never forget”(Image: Nicholas Bowman/Sunday Mirror)

“We had lost two boys so we knew we had to let them try something different.” The complex surgery involved ­dissecting the donor liver to an eighth of its size in a two-hour procedure so it would fit into six pound Baebhen’s tiny abdomen.

While the donor liver was being prepared, a second team of surgeons were removing Baebhen’s diseased organ.

King’s College had started pioneering the splitting and sharing of donor livers between two recipients, but this was the smallest piece ever transplanted.

Prof Rela used micro surgery with image intensifying glasses to join up the tiny blood vessels of the donor organ to Baebhen’s circulation. He said: “She was so small we were expecting possible setbacks but there were none and maybe being small was to her advantage.

“She has never suffered rejection ­episodes and that may be due to her immune system being not then fully developed so her body was able to accept the ‘foreign’ liver. Now we are so proud of her and what we did.

Baebhen said: “I always think about how lucky I have been to have been brought to King’s and to have that ­remarkable ­operation. Coming back to the ward where I stayed after the transplant has been amazing.”

Baebhen Schuttke had been born with a rare genetic disorder that was poisoning her liver(Image: Nicholas Bowman/Sunday Mirror)

After Baebhen was discharged, the family remained in London for a couple of weeks to be close to King’s.

Ita added: “She grew rapidly and was so well as a child you wouldn’t have known she’d once been close to death.

“We count ourselves lucky. Neo-natal haemachromatosis is rare and not a lot is known about it.”

Baebhen, who met other little transplant patients during her King’s visit, is a keen canoeist, swimmer, walker and hill climber and excelled at school winning a place to study law at Trinity College, Dublin.

Ita said: “We think a lot about the brave family of the boy who died who agreed to donate his liver. We have never written to them as some relatives do. We felt it ­difficult at the time because of the publicity around the case.

“These donations are anonymous and we know nothing about the family. If they ever wanted to ­exchange letters or meet we would be delighted.” Ita, Jurgen and Baebhen ­passionately believe the law in Ireland, England and Scotland should say consent to ­donation is presumed, a campaign ­championed by the Daily Mirror.

Baebhen said: “Someone saved my life with their liver, so if anything happened to me I’d like to pass that liver to the next person in need.”

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