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Living donor's gift leads to a new life; Holland woman was recipient

If it had not been for the extraordinary generosity of a Dunkirk woman, Cathleen J. Klaffka would not have been in the right place at the right time.

On Good Friday last year, Heather Boyer read a story in The Buffalo News reporting that Klaffka was in dire need of a liver transplant.

The medication the Southtowns woman had been taking for a decade to protect her damaged liver from an auto-immune disease had stopped working.

Boyer, 29, donated 65 percent of her liver, and though the transplant didn't take, it did work well enough to buy Klaffka enough time for another transplant that did work.

The more than 12-hour transplant operation was performed in July by two teams of doctors in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Everything initially pointed to a successful surgery, but within two days there were complications. Doctors twice tried to "tweak" the transplanted organ to get it to function properly. No luck.

Klaffka, 56, started slipping fast. Three times she almost died in the intensive care unit. The situation was so severe that her in-laws, who rarely leave Cheektowaga, drove to Pittsburgh on Sept. 15 to offer moral support to Klaffka and their son Richard.

At 5 p.m. that day, while they were all huddled around Klaffka's bed, Dr. Abhinav Humar opened the door to the hospital room and, in a soft-spoken voice, said he had just sent out a group of doctors to evaluate another donated liver, Richard Klaffka recalled.

Fifteen hours later, his wife was in surgery for the fourth time in three months. A few days later, after carefully monitoring the functions of the second transplanted liver, which came from a deceased organ donor, Humar told his patient she was on the road to recovery.

But Klaffka says she knows that had it not been for Boyer's original contribution, she might have missed the second chance at a transplant.

"My picture was in the newspaper with the story on Good Friday last year, and Heather noticed the dress I was wearing in the picture. Her mother had one just like it, and Heather later told me she had always wanted her mother's dress," Klaffka said.

But more than the dress, Boyer had always dreamed of donating an organ to someone in desperate need.

"Heather told us that when growing up, her uncle had needed a kidney, and his sister donated one. Heather thought that was fantastic and decided that if she ever had the chance, she would donate," said Richard Klaffka.

Boyer said it was the opportunity to fulfill her dream.

"It was an honor to give someone life, a second chance," she said,

Boyer says her liver has nearly completed regenerating.

Would she ever consider donating again? "I couldn't do it with my liver, but if somebody needed a kidney, absolutely," she said.

Klaffka's in-laws, Norman and Patricia Klaffka, came up with a nickname for Boyer: "Heather From Heaven."

On Nov. 11, Cathleen and Richard Klaffka returned to their Lewis Road home in Holland.

"I'm going to be 57 in June, but now I feel as if I have two birthdays, one in June and one in September, and they both fall on the 16th of the month," Klaffka said.

But it wasn't easy getting back on her feet after being laid up for months.

"I went into the hospital at 180 pounds and left at 120 pounds. Before I left the hospital, I had to go to a special rehab unit to learn how to walk again," Klaffka said. "At home, we had to have a hospital bed in the living room because I was weak and couldn't manage the stairs."

Her chief caregiver, her husband, insisted she start physical therapy this January.

In addition to exercise, Klaffka says she "tries to follow a healthy diet" and takes 22 pills a day that include anti-rejection medications.

"My Sunday ritual is filling my pill box for the week," she said, happy to be alive. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of the person and their family who gave me my second chance at life."

As for Boyer, Klaffka views her as a sister, a very loving sister.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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