SALT LAKE CITY — It would be hard to tell now, but there was a time not very long ago when toddler Brycen McKen's liver was failing and he was "hovering between this life and the next," his mother says.
In December 2016, the young boy, then only about 8 months old, was called into surgery at Primary Children's Hospital after a liver became available for transplant.
"The surgeon came out halfway through the surgery and explained the (liver) infection that was there and that it was about the size of a softball, and that upon removal they could not proceed to transplant because Brycen became unstable," said Shayli McKen.
She said what followed was a "very humbling Christmas" for the McKen family, from Afton, Wyoming, who spent the holidays "between the motel and the hospital" as Brycen was clinging to life.
A year later, Brycen had improved from his lowest point, but his parents were still waiting desperately for a liver transplant.
On Dec. 30, 2017, the call came again, and this time the surgery was carried through to completion. Brycen, now 2 years old, had been given a second chance at life.
"If you looked at Brycen now, you would never know the story behind his cute, smiling face," McKen said. "He quickly got rid of his feeding tube. He went from eating nothing by mouth to eating everything he can get his hands on. His two older sisters call him the 'eater monster.'"
Once weighed down by tubes and pumps even when out of the hospital, Brycen is now "full of energy from the time he wakes up until the moment he goes to bed," his mother said.
McKen was sharing her story Wednesday at a celebration put on by Primary Children's Hospital in recognition of 20 successful pediatric liver transplants completed by surgeons there in 2017. That number ranks ninth in the country. It is also record-breaking at Primary Children's and significantly more than its average of 14 annually, according to hospital officials.
"More importantly ... we stand with the very best of all programs in (terms of) outcomes of how well our children are doing," said Dr. Linda Book, medical director of the Pediatric Liver Disease and Transplant Program at Primary Children's Hospital. "They're going back to normal lives of school and playing and being healthy babies, children and toddlers, and it's so heartwarming to see that change."
In all, 40 patients at Primary Children's received either a liver, heart, kidney or bone marrow transplant in 2017. Dr. Manuel Rodriguez-Davalos, surgical director of pediatric liver transplantation at Primary Children's, said that last year's liver transplants came from donors in nine states.
Sophie Hansen, 15, from Bountiful, received half of a liver that was split in two in order to benefit both herself and Brycen McKen. Hansen couldn't be at the celebration Wednesday — not because she wasn't well enough, but because her recovery is so complete that she was vacationing outside the country with her family.
"I was super excited to be told that it would be shared with (another) kid at Primary Children's," Hansen, who waited 12 years for her transplant, said in a prepared video message. "I'm really excited to get back doing things I really like doing. I love to figure skate (and) I'm excited to get back to school."
Elizabeth Hervis, from Las Vegas, has been staying at Primary Children's Hospital with her 7-month-old daughter Natalia since the young girl was airlifted to the facility in December due to severe liver failure. Natalia, who received a transplant on Feb. 23, was well enough to attend Wednesday's celebration with her doting mom.
"She's almost doubled in weight in the past month," Hervis said proudly. "She's just doing really good."
Hervis, who hasn't left since she her daughter arrived at Primary Children's in December, is more than ready for the emotionally wrought journey to be over.
"We're hoping soon, before May preferably," she said when asked when she and Natalia might be able to go home. "I thought I was emotional during pregnancy — this is the most emotional thing I've ever experienced."
Debt of gratitude to donors
In recognition of a national campaign called Donate Life Month, medical staff and recipient families also took time Wednesday to give gratitude to the organ donor families who made their patients' and their loved ones' dramatic recoveries possible.
McKen said she still thinks about and prays for the family whose child's death precipitated her son's transplant.
"It was amazing to us, in that time of immense sorrow and grief, they would have the love and generosity to think of others," she said. "Ultimately we are grateful for the decision of a donor family to help others in the midst of their terrible grief."
Rodriguez-Davalos praised families who donate pediatric organs as heroes, many of whom "we don't know."
"These are the darkest moments (for these) families, and very tragic, and they actually take the time to say, 'Yes, I want to help others,'" Rodriguez-Davalos said.
He implored bluntly, "If you're not a donor, you should be a donor."
"(My donor was) able to save my life and another person's life," she said. "I would encourage all of you to sign up."
While all organ donation is praiseworthy, said Tracy Schmidt, executive director of Intermountain Donor Services, he has a special admiration for parents who give the go-ahead for such a donation even in the fresh grief of their own child's death.
"It's a different feeling to accept ... that transition that your child has passed away and can help others," Schmidt said. "And so I honor those that are able to do that and think about that and give that gift."