You’d never know it by looking at her jumping up and down on the trampoline, but eight-year-old Gianna-Lynn Favilla had a life-changing liver transplant five months ago.
On the last day of summer, Gianna has popped over to see best friend Lily Budel, who lives around the corner in Russell, southeast of Ottawa. When she arrived, Lily ran toward her. Gianna’s face lit. up. They giggled.
The two are inseparable. The two rarely leave each other’s sight, but when they do it’s because there are times when Lily is out of breath trying to keep up with Gianna.
Gianna’s energy is boundless.
After the trampoline, it’s on to the zip line between two trees in the backyard, a brief bike ride, and a game of catch with Lily’s golden retriever, Penny.
The girls are in Grade 4. They ride to and from school together every day and take a jazz dance class together. It’s clear they share a special bond, but their families were not always so close.
Gianna’s parents, Sue and Chris Favilla, say what brought them together is a story of hope and second chances.
Sue recounted publicly for the first time what happened leading up to their daughter’s surgery on April 21.
In March, some six months after Gianna’s name was put on the organ transplant waiting list, Sue got the call: there was a match for Gianna. An anonymous donor had been found.
Overwhelmed by emotion and with little time to prepare, Sue packed Gianna’s bag. Within a couple of days they flew to Toronto for the surgery.
“I couldn’t say anything … because the donor was anonymous and had asked us not to go public for a couple of weeks until things settled down. We wanted to respect that person’s wishes, obviously.
What happened that day has marked her.
“We were admitted to Sick Kids,” Sue says, her voice breaking.
“It was just a bad day,” Sue says, pausing to wipe tears from her eyes.
Her husband, Chris, jumps in: “It was a good day.”
“It was a good day, but it was a bad day,” she replies.
On the eve of the surgery, Sue received another phone call.
“At 8:30 p.m. … the surgeons at the Toronto General Hospital made a decision to cancel the surgery. They decided it was too risky for different reasons.”
She went to bed devastated, her hope for Gianna’s much-needed liver transplant having just evaporated.
That is until Lily’s parents — Stacy and Ken Budel — received a surprise phone call of their own back in Russell.
“It was March break and they woke me up out of bed,” Stacy said. “As soon as I saw it was an unknown number, I knew I had to take it.”
Ken Budel had applied to become an organ donor some months before, and he learned that very morning that he was being scheduled for a battery of tests in Toronto to determine if he would be a suitable match for Gianna.
Unaware of what had just transpired in Toronto 12 hours earlier, Stacy texted Sue on the morning of of what would have been Gianna surgery. Still in Toronto and reeling from the previous night’s heartbreaking, Sue called Stacy in Russell.
Sue remembers Stacy saying, “Ken is going to be the donor. I’m telling you. He’s going to be the donor. I feel it in my heart. I know it … it’s going to be OK.”
Stacy didn’t even know that Sue was in Toronto, or how close Gianna had come to receiving a transplant. “She didn’t know what we had just lived through,” Sue said. “It was just the best day. It was just the best day, really.”
As luck would have it, Ken was a match for Gianna.
“I know there was a lot of criteria but I’m pretty sure that living around the corner from us was not one of them,” Sue said as Chris, Stacy and Ken burst out laughing.
Five months after undergoing surgery, Ken is full of positives while discussing donating part of his liver.
“I went into the hospital in decent shape, I was well prepared, and I pushed myself to recover.
“It was easy, and I’m not saying that to minimize it.”
About 20 per cent of his liver was removed during surgery and today, he says, it is “100-per-cent regrown.”
The experience has brought him and his wife closer to Gianna’s parents.
“I trust the family with Lily’s life,” Ken says. “You can tell they really love her. She’s in safe hands when she’s over there.”
Ken also feels like the act of donating has changed him, but he is still figuring out how to put it into words.
“I’ll tell you, though, sometimes I look back and see her, and I’m like, ‘My liver is in that kid.’ “
Gianna will have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life, and she suffers from Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of her digestive system.
“She’ll have challenges, sure,” Ken says, “but you’d never know it by looking at her.
“She’s a million miles an hour.”
Sue says she is sharing their story because, in part, she wants to thank the person who was originally scheduled to be the liver donor. “It’s a weird feeling being so grateful to someone you don’t know. … But I would love to know or meet this person to thank them.”
Sue is also grateful to the doctors who had a very tough call to make.
“I have so much respect for them because they didn’t do what was easy. They did what was right. And they did it to protect both Gianna and the potential donor.”
Sue also hopes that Gianna and Ken’s story will inspire others to register as organ donors. Ninety per cent of Canadians say they support organ and tissue donation, but fewer than 20 per cent have actually made plans to donate, according to the Canadian Transplant Society.
Next month, Gianna and Lily both celebrate their ninth birthdays.