For the Win: When a Daughter Saves Her Mother’s Life

When Sammi Gorman’s mom needed a liver transplant, the 20-year-old lacrosse player refused to stay on the sidelines.

When Roberta Gorman first told her daughter that she had been diagnosed with primary biliary cirrhosis and needed a liver transplant, 19-year-old Sammi Gorman was on a team bus on her way back to Fitchburg State University, where she was a sophomore, from a lacrosse game. Night was falling and the two were talking by cell phone. “I sat there and was like, ‘I could help you,’” Sammi says, recalling the conversation. Roberta, who goes by Bobbi with her family, dismissed the idea out of hand. She had five brothers and sisters, a husband and older son; certainly one of them would be a possible donor.

“You’re supposed to be taking care of your kid, not your kid taking care of you,” she explains. Plus, Sammi was too young; liver living donors typically need to be at least 21. For all of those reasons, even when Sammi persisted, “We kept telling her no,” Bobbi says.

But over the subsequent months, as family members were one-by-one disqualified as possible donors, Bobbi’s condition deteriorated significantly. Not one to watch from the sidelines, Sammi pleaded to get evaluated. For Bobbi and her husband, Barry, it was an agonizing decision. “Do we want to [let Sam] do this, or don’t we? What if the end results aren’t good? What if something happens?” Bobbi recalls.

Sammi thought about it differently: “The entire time, I felt pretty confident that everything was going to be fine. Where my mom thought she was putting her daughter in danger, I thought: I’m healthy; I’m going to bounce back and my liver is going to grow back.” There were more sentimental considerations as well: “I know it sounds corny, but I’m about to head into the adult world. I still need my mom.” She laughs.

For Bobbi, it would ultimately take a conversation with her physician, Leona Kim-Schluger, MD, associate director of the Recanati/Miller Transplantation Institute at Mount Sinai, to get her to feel comfortable with Sammi’s decision to become her donor. “Dr. Kim said something very important: ‘As a mother, I understand your feelings, and I would say no in a heartbeat as a parent. But as a person, you can’t take this away from her.’” The advice resonated. This was something her daughter wanted to do. That drive was part of who she was. Thus, with tremendous trepidation, Bobbi agreed.

Evaluation, Surgery, and Recovery

Sammi underwent the evaluation in November 2011. She remembers finding out she was a qualified match shortly afterwards vividly: “I was walking down the [dormitory] hall, when I got the call,” Sammi says. Her transplant coordinator told her the news. “I was like, ‘So wait, I’m a match?’” She was thrilled. “My friends were all jumping out into the hallway and hugging me and getting all excited. It was a very exciting day.”

The seriousness of the situation didn’t fully sink in for Sammi until a day after returning home from finals. That morning, Sammi woke up to find Bobbi unresponsive. An ambulance rushed her to the ER, where she was admitted to the ICU. Although they had hoped to schedule surgery for after the spring semester when it would it be least disruptive to Sammi’s studies, it was becoming clear that there wasn’t time to waste.

Surgery was scheduled for February 7, 2012. It was a “textbook” case, Sammi says. For mom and daughter, it couldn’t have gone more smoothly.

Bobbi was never so excited to see her daughter as after surgery. “When they wheeled her in, if I hadn’t been so groggy, I would have jumped up and down,” she says. “She came over and hugged me. The people behind her were all crying. But she was smiling. She was in her glory.” She looked like an “angel” Bobbi adds, and confesses that even a year later, she still dwells on that memory often.

For Sammi, the first thing she noticed upon seeing her mother was how much her complexion improved; second, was how much more like her old self she was. “A complete 180, it was amazing. I didn’t expect, in all honesty, to see results that quickly,” Sammi says. She told her mom how good she looked. Bobbi, with spirits clearly improving, quipped: “I didn’t think I looked that bad before.”

Last fall, Sammi returned to Fitchburg State University, where she resumed her studies towards a degree in communications media, as well as lacrosse. She also started a charity, Endless Cradle, through which she is working to raise awareness and funds for liver disease treatment and research. When she graduates next week—on-time with honors, despite the semester she took off for surgery—most of her classmates will see the occasion as a milestone connoting their passage to full adulthood. Whether Sammi realizes it or not, it’s a transition she made already.

“The whole thing has definitely changed my life,” Sammi says. “It has shown me a side of things that I hadn’t seen before and allows me to put things in perspective. And I’m very glad that everything worked out. Those first minutes of seeing my mom with her color was like having my mom back. That was the most rewarding thing of all. I was like ‘she’s back!’”