Bryanna Warren said she didn't feel like she was alive until she was 8-years-old. That's when the Edwardsville resident and Granite City native received a liver transplant at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
"Before the transplant, I don't remember anything," Warren, 28, said. "After the transplant, I remember everything. It's almost like I wasn't even born until after the transplant."
Last month, Warren marked her 20-year milestone of being an organ transplant recipient. Warren was born with a condition called biliary atresia, a blockage in the tubes that carries bile from the liver to the gallbladder.
Warren's mother, Christy Lackey, said it took eight long years before her daughter's diseased liver could be replaced with a healthy one. The family was told the donor was a little boy who died in a car accident.
"Twenty years ago, (transplants) were kind of taboo," said Lackey. "You hear so much more about them now than you did 20 years ago. There weren't a lot of people we talked to that had a transplant."
Dr. William Chapman, the chief of transplant and the surgical director of the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital Transplant Center program said in an email that Warren's family was in the forefront of transplant surgery.
"The first liver transplant was performed in the 1960s. Our liver transplant program started in 1985. But it didn't become that common of a procedure until the 1990s," Chapman said.
Lackey said she and Warren's father, Bryan Warren, had some hard decisions to make in 1992.
"Imagine your child laying there and getting their vital organs taken out of their body and another person's organs put inside," Lackey said. "But after the surgery when they took the liver out, we saw the actual liver and that let me know we were doing the right thing."
Today, Warren is a spirited young woman with a radiant smile and a dream of pursuing a cosmetology license. And the 2004 Granite City High School graduate is looking forward to her October 2013 wedding to fiancée Shawn Lowery and their plans to start a family.
"If you look at me, you would never guess I had a transplant," Warren said. "But I get so sick so fast. My immune system is pretty much like that of a young child."
Warren also has had to get used to the twice-daily regimen of taking anti-rejection medication and the need to get monthly blood tests to monitor her healthy liver.
Chapman said despite transplant surgery being relatively new, medical professionals are seeing longer survival rates for recipients.
"Right now, it's unique to see people who are reaching that type of milestone, though as time goes on, we expect to see more and more people do so," Chapman said. "We're seeing more and more long-term liver transplant recipients with good, normal functioning livers. We don't expect there to be a time limit on how long a patient's liver will last — it should last as long as it's needed."
And Warren said she plans to be around for a long time — especially since she's been through so much.
"I remember a lot of my friends that I met at the hospital dying," she said. "That's hard. Every kid you start to play with and stuff. And one day, they're not there."
That's why Warren and her family not only celebrate her July 28 birthday, they also celebrate August 22 every year as her "liver birthday." Last week, Warren was on her way to see the Lion King at the Fox Theater — a liver birthday gift from her dad.
But she said her biggest liver birthday wish is to meet the family of her donor. Although she has reached out to the family through the Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center, the family has declined to meet with her.
"I would love nothing more than to meet them," she said. "Every year people ask me what do I want for my liver birthday. I said I would love to meet the family. The doctor asked them, but they don't want to ... I wanted to find out his initials and get a memorial tattoo, just something that can make me feel closer to him."
Warren and her family have become huge advocates of organ donation. So much so that one of the first questions she asked her fiancée was whether or not he was an organ donor. Fortunately, he said yes.
"I'd never date anyone who wasn't a donor or willing to be one," she said.
Christy Lackey said if she could impart one thing to anyone, it's to let their family know of their intent to donate their organs.
"What that (donor) family did made all the impact in the world," Lackey said. "Not only because of her life. She's one life. But one donation can save up to 50 lives. And it works. Here's proof: 20 years later — she's still alive."
Contact reporter Ramona C. Sanders at 618-344-0264, ext. 136