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Kathleen Callaghan: Saving her daughter's life helped define hers

Kathleen Callaghan's daughter Elizabeth was 3 1/2 months old when the baby's symptoms surfaced.

On that August weekend, she threw up frequently. Her sleep became restless. And the corners of her eyes turned yellow.

That Monday, the pediatrician sent her to the Connecticut Children's Medical Center. By Thursday, doctors knew liver problems were likely to kill her.

Elizabeth's baptism, scheduled for Saturday, was canceled.

"I was planning her funeral instead of her baptism," Callaghan said, choking back tears nearly four years later. "We were going to have her buried in her baptism dress."

The baby needed a new liver.

As the nerve-wracking wait for a donor began, a nurse told them about another option: the living donor program. Doctors could remove part of a donor's liver and transplant it into Elizabeth. The donor and the baby both would end up with a fully functioning liver, once each portion had time to regenerate.

That was all Callaghan needed to hear. She tackled her daughter's medical nightmare with all the determination that made her valedictorian at Orchard Park High School and landed her a chair in the community symphony when she was 15.

"I was on a mission -- she's getting my liver," Callaghan said. "If anything happened to her, that would be the end of me."

Elizabeth was transferred to Mount Sinai in New York, accompanied by Callaghan and her husband, Dong Li. Two weeks later, doctors cleared Callaghan as a donor.

Dr. Sukru Emre and his team spent three hours extracting part of Callaghan's liver, and another eight hours putting it into her daughter. The next six months proved an excruciating recovery for mother and daughter, but with a happy ending.

These days, doctors closely monitor the enzyme levels for Elizabeth, who's now a quiet 4-year-old with a passion for books and a weakness for the giggles. The smallest health problems have the potential to blossom, given the immunosuppressive drugs she takes.

But her parents take solace in their proximity to Mount Sinai, as well as top-notch facilities in Boston.

It's just one of many reasons Callaghan loves living in East Lyme, Conn., outside Mystic, with her husband; their children, Elizabeth, 4; Brendan, 2, and Brian, 5 months; and their black cocker spaniel, Molly.

Callaghan earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Canisius, then went to Yale, where she planned to earn her doctorate.

"You basically work as slave labor for a professor. It's a form of indentured servitude," she said. "For a lot of people, especially women, you kind of say enough is enough after a while. I left after a master's in chemistry from Yale."

She returned to Buffalo and taught science at The Nichols School, working on her master's in education from Canisius at the same time. But the workload was heavy, the pay was low, and Callaghan decided that Buffalo wasn't where she wanted to be.

She headed for Boston, where she landed a chemistry job at the Cabot Corp. There she met Li, a theoretical chemist and a graduate of Peking University.

The two married and moved to Mystic, where Li had been hired at Pfizer. Soon, Callaghan was hired there, too, doing organic synthetic chemistry.

Since Elizabeth was born, Callaghan has been a stay-at-home mom, delving into projects with the same fervor she attacked academics and chemistry.

When she was seven months pregnant with Brian, she single-handedly moved the family into a new house in East Lyme -- at 3,300 square feet, double the size of their old one -- taking a load of boxes and furniture over in the Honda Odyssey every day, leaving only the biggest pieces for the movers.

A few times a year, Callaghan fills in playing viola for the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, reminiscent of the 11 years she played with the Orchard Park Symphony, starting while she was in high school.

Callaghan doesn't see Buffalo as offering the challenges she seeks as an adult. At Pfizer in Connecticut, for instance, she was thrilled to find "international chemistry superstars."

"It's a lot more stimulating to be with these kinds of people," she said. "Buffalo is not really providing a lot of that."

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