By Janis Mara
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POSTED: 07/08/2014 05:32:40 PM PDT
In three days, 9-year-old Miya French of Novato will line up on the edge of an Olympic-sized pool, then dive in as the starting buzzer sounds, competing in a national swim meet thanks to the liver donated to her by her sister.
Miya was born with an abnormality that meant her liver would gradually fail. As her health deteriorated, her sister Miwa, 14 years her senior, came to the rescue, donating a portion of her liver in 2009.
Now, Miya is on the 60-member Northern California team competing in the Transplant Games of America beginning Friday in Houston.
“I knew right away I wanted to donate my liver to my sister,” said Miwa, 23, who will be on hand along with the rest of the family to watch her sister in action. “As soon as I found out I could help, I told my parents I wanted to do it.”
Nine-year-old Miya French holds her dog, Flower, at home in Novato. Nine-year-old Miya French holds her dog, Flower, at home in Novato. (Alan Dep — Marin Independent Journal) At first, the girls’ parents, Kazumi “Kim” French and her husband Merle, were against it. Both are health care professionals who understood all too well what surgery entailed.
“We couldn’t have two girls in surgery, so I said ‘no,'” said Kim. But when Miwa turned 18, she talked her parents into it. On Dec. 10, 2009, a portion of her liver was transplanted to replace the ailing organ in Miya.
“The liver is the only organ that regenerates itself,” said Kim, an emergency room nurse at Novato Community Hospital. Her husband is an emergency room nurse at a Kaiser facility in Walnut Creek.
“Miya had biliary atresia, a congenital abnormality of the bile ducts. It was discovered when she was 8 weeks old, and we knew right away she would need a transplant,” Kim French said.
The left lobe of Miwa’s liver was removed and implanted in place of Miya’s. “That left lobe grew until it became the size of a normal liver after it was implanted,” Kim French said. “The right lobe of Miwa’s liver also expanded,” Kim French said. “Now they’re both as good as new.”
Gathered in the back yard of the Frenches’ home near downtown Novato, it’s clear that this is a close family. Big sister Miwa is still protective. Miya’s dog, Flower, the black Chihuahua, sits tucked in close to her side.
“Right after surgery, she wasn’t doing so well. I told her, ‘If you promise to hang in there, we’ll get you anything you want,'” said Kim French.
“If I get out of here, I want a Chihuahua,” Miya said. Now, she and her dog are inseparable. The family’s other dog, Oreo, a black-and-white Pomeranian poodle, also kept watch during the interview.
Despite the tough moments in recovery, the youngster came back quickly. Before the surgery, Miya wasn’t able to go to kindergarten because her spleen was swollen and doctors feared she might fall and hurt herself.
“Almost as soon as she came home, she was running around and playing,” Kim French said.
Miya French, 9, plays with her dog, Flower, at home in Novato. Her mother promised Miya a Chihuahua while the girl was recovering from liver transplant Miya French, 9, plays with her dog, Flower, at home in Novato. Her mother promised Miya a Chihuahua while the girl was recovering from liver transplant surgery. (Alan Dep — Marin Independent Journal) “She was at the mall in no time,” said Miwa affectionately. Now a student at the College of Marin Indian Valley campus, the big sister shrugs off praise and suggestions that she is a hero. “She (Miya) was getting worse. Of course I did it.”
Both sisters were in surgery more than seven hours. They were on different floors, so father Merle stayed by Miwa’s side and Kim stuck with Miya. Brother Austin, who is now 20 and a premed student at University of California at Davis, and sister Marina, now 16 and a junior at San Marin High School, helped their parents tend to the donor and recipient sisters after they came home.
The family talks freely about the details of the surgery, but focuses more on the 9-year-old’s athletic accomplishments.
“She started swimming just two years ago. She had never been in the water before, but she took to it right away,” Kim French said.
Shortly after her first lesson, Miya showed such promise she was able to join the Marin Pirates, a swim team based at the Indian Valley campus of the College of Marin.
“She competes with the Pirates against other teams year-round,” Kim said. “Her favorite race is the 100-meter breast stroke.”
“She is excelling. She is exceeding all our expectations,” said Tom Evers, Marin Pirates head age group coach. “We don’t push them too much competitively until they get older, but she is on the course of some of our high-level athletes. We have athletes who have gone to the Olympics,” including Scott Weltz, Evers said.
The youngster is looking forward to the trip to Houston. Her first event is Saturday.
Perched on the covered hot tub in the backyard, with her swimsuit drying behind her, Miya asked her mother, “How soon do we leave?”
“She can’t wait to go,” said Kim French. In addition to the swim events, Miya will compete in track, her mother said.
The games are a multi-sport festival event to help spread the word about organ and tissue donation. By spotlighting athletes who have survived the procedure and thrived, the idea is to show the world that transplantation works. Adults and children take part, and Miya is the youngest member of the Northern California team to compete this year, her mother said.
“Miwa became Miya’s hero by giving a portion of her liver to save her life. Miya was lucky to have a sister who could do this. For many others, the wait for an organ transplant is long and sometimes doesn’t come in time. Registering as an organ and tissue donor is an act of generosity that will help others at a time of great need,” said Anthony Border of the California Transplant Donor Network.