Photography: Frances Juriansz
Now the parents’ roles were reversed. A person is only able to donate his or her liver once, so this time Jason went through the tests to make sure he was a healthy, suitable match. They needed to move quickly. Lynn and Jason watched the tinge of yellow in Alyson’s eyes transform into a full-body hue. The child stopped eating and had to be given a feeding tube. She needed blood transfusions. Her tiny, fluid-filled belly grew round and hard. It looked to Jason as if she had “swallowed a watermelon whole.”
By late December, as they continued to make preparations for surgery, the doctors were blunt: Alyson was in bad shape. Without a successful transplant, she wouldn’t live long. Their daughter was so young the Hampsons had only ever heard her laugh once. That sound had disappeared when she fell sick. Now they were told they might never hear it again.
December passed like a terrible dream. While Alyson and Lynn stayed in 6A, Logan and Jason moved into the nearby Ronald McDonald House, a place to stay for families receiving treatment for serious illnesses. Two days before Christmas, Jason caught the Norwalk virus, throwing the whole process off-track as doctors kept him quarantined, waiting for him to recover. If Jason was no longer a suitable match-if his health wasn’t good enough or there was something wrong with his liver-the chances of finding another donor in time were extremely slim. He lay in bed, worrying every wasted day was putting his daughter one step closer to death.
By December 26, Jason had recovered from the virus enough to visit the hospital, where the entire family celebrated a belated Christmas together. Logan got a Wii video-game console-an artifact from what seemed like a different life, months earlier, when Lynn and Jason had had the luxury of carefully picking out Christmas presents for their son. The doctors delivered their own gift later that day: Jason was fine. The transplant could proceed, but Alyson was so close to death it needed to happen immediately. They had 48 hours.
The next night, four-year-old Logan stayed with Lynn and Alyson in 6A. Jason was alone, across the road at Toronto General. His mind was crowded with appalling possibilities. What if they opened him up and found a flaw in his liver? What if he woke up and his daughter didn’t? What if something happened to him, and Lynn and the kids were left on their own? Though they didn’t know it at the time, the family’s two separate rooms were right across the road from one another. When Jason looked out the window during his long sleepless night, he was staring at the room where his family was staying, waiting for him.
By 7 a.m., surgery time, Jason was so nervous he couldn’t answer basic questions. “I was a mess,” says Jason. “I was on the verge of just breaking.”
Photography: Frances Juriansz
Across the way, Alyson was waiting at SickKids, her little body covered in tubes. If everything went according to plan, surgeons would remove about 20 percent of Jason’s liver. They would stitch him up and transport the organ beneath busy Gerrard Street West, through the underground tunnel that connects the two hospitals. Only then would they open up Alyson and begin the delicate operation.
“With a very small baby, the surgery is more complex,” says SickKids’ Yaron Avitzur. It’s a meticulous procedure. “You need to connect bile ducts, blood vessels.” Eventually, much of Jason’s liver would regenerate. Inside Alyson, Jason’s organ would-if everything proceeded as hoped-become a part of his daughter, growing with her through childhood, adulthood and all the way into old age. It was a kind of alchemy: You took one life and, with ingenuity, made two.
Jason remembers getting wheeled into the operating room and being transferred onto the table, stainless steel everywhere. Then the mask, followed by the countdown. Next, he remembers waking in recovery, one insistent thought slicing through the fog: Is she okay?
Two weeks later, on January 9, Alyson was allowed to leave the ICU and return to 6A. Since the surgery, there had been minor setbacks with her lungs, but things seemed under control. It was there, in the familiar ward, that Lynn finally heard it-the soft sound of her daughter’s laugh. “It was the greatest thing I’d ever heard,” Lynn says. When the Hampsons talk about it now, they call it the “second first time” Alyson ever laughed.
The doctors at SickKids have done a lot of transplants, but they’ve never had a family like the Hampsons-where both parents donated an organ to save a child.
“There are risks and challenges for the donors,” says Avitzur. “It’s not a straightforward decision. And the fact that both parents were willing to do that, without hesitation, to save their children’s lives, is admirable. It’s one of those things where you say, ‘Wow.'”
Today, Alyson is crawling, catching up on the milestones she missed during her illness. Logan is wheeling around, somersaulting along the carpet, flashing a glimpse of his surgery scar, a clean slice of a line that swoops across his abdomen-the Hampson family crest.