Woman’s tissue donation to sister is act of love and act of courage
LA COSTA — How far would you go to save your sister?
Michelle Teran, 57, a La Costa resident, was faced with that question when her sister Leslie Richter, 45, needed a lifesaving tissue donation.
Teran answered the call to donate 6 feet of her small intestine when Richter developed a condition in which all but 5 inches of her bowel had died because of blocked bloodflow.
“My hand shot up; ‘I’ll do it!’ ” Teran said.
April 30 marked the anniversary of the surgery that led the Teran family to believe in miracles.
Before the surgery, Richter, a Tucsonresident, faced a lifetime of receiving sustenance intravenously. “Total parenteral nutrition,” as it is called, placed her at a higher risk of liver failure and infections.
“Leslie wouldn’t be able to eat, would not have a normal life, but our family was unanimous that it was better to keep her than to lose her, so we supported this option,” Teran said.
Before Richter was diagnosed with “short gut syndrome,” the layman’s term for her blocked intestines, she beat breast cancer and, by May 2008, had completed chemotherapy. By chance, a year earlier, her parents Bill and Irene Teran had relocated from San Diego to the Tucson area to be close to their youngest daughter of three. At the time, they didn’t know how their support would aid her survival.
Richter’s life abruptly changed on Oct. 1, 2008. She began having severe stomach pains and her husband, Eric, rushed her to the emergency room.
“The doctors said that there was nothing wrong and sent her home,” Teran said.
Later that day Richter collapsed and was airlifted to Tucson’s University Medical Center, where doctors discovered her condition. They didn’t hold out much hope for her.
Teran said initially the doctors felt there was nothing they could do for her sister.
Fate played its hand when Eric Richter began doing research on living-donor intestinal transplants. He learned of Dr. Rainer Gruessner, who was working at University Medical Center and was putting together a team to do such transplants. Richter sought out Gruessner, who agreed to do the surgery.
It took six months for the Richters to persuade their insurance company to cover the transplant — and they still needed a compatible donor.
“There was no question that I would help my sister. I went through psychological testing, a lot of blood work, MRIs, CT scans, flying back and forth between San Diego and Tuscon,” said Teran.
On an April morning last year, surgeons performed the first intestine transplant in the Southwest, using a living donor.
Richter’s surgery was almost 13 hours. Teran’s was 9½ hours.
“My surgery was estimated to be only three and a half hours,” Teran said. “The doctors said that they found severe scarring from an appendectomy that could easily create the same condition as my sister’s. In effect, my sister saved my life, too.”
But the real miracle was that Richter was in the right city at the right time with the right surgeon, said Teran, a real estate agent in San Diego County.
Today Richter continues to do well, with no risk of rejection, but because of diminished kidney function, she may need a transplant.
“My sister is an adorable person and her attitude is that there is always somebody worse off than she is,” Teran said. “She has a strong, positive spirit. I’m now trying to spread the word. I want to educate people that this work can be done successfully, that it can save lives.”