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Sister and brother closer than ever after liver transplant

Submitted Photo Samantha Westmeyer holds hands with her brother, Austin Westmeyer, in the hospital after she donated 69 percent of her liver to him.

Austin Westmeyer and his younger sister, Samantha Westmeyer, have always been close but now they have an even tighter bond.

On April 21, Samantha donated 69 percent of her liver to Austin, who has suffered with ulcerative colitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis since he was a freshman in college.

“We’ve always been close,” said Austin Westmeyer, a 2013 graduate of Minot High School who now lives in Minneapolis in a house he shares with his sister, who is a 2014 Minot High graduate. “… I feel like it’s kind of funny and should have been seen coming as soon as I got sick that Samantha would be the one who would some day have to give me part of her liver. I think that’s very cool and just one more way that we were able to bond and be even closer because we now share a body part.”

Samantha Westmeyer was glad to be able to help her brother.

“It definitely felt good (to be able to help Austin),” she said, though she said she was also a little scared to be having the major surgery.

Andrea Johnson/MDN Mother Randi Westmeyer, son Austin Westmeyer, daughter Samantha Westmeyer, and dad Trent Westmeyer pose outside The Minot Daily News office on Thursday. Trent and Randi Westmeyer said the day their daughter donated part of her liver to their son was terrifying. Months later, they are recovering well.

Samantha was also glad that she was the one who was able to donate part of her liver instead of other members of her family. She thinks it would have been harder to have to wait to see how her family members were doing during the hours of waiting for the transplant surgery to be completed.

Her parents, Trent and Randi Westmeyer of Minot, said the day of the transplant was one of the worst days of their lives because it was so very scary and stressful. Austin and Samantha are their only children.

Austin had complications following the transplant and had to undergo multiple other surgeries in the hours and days afterwards. He spent nearly a month in the hospital afterwards recovering.

Austin and Samantha both asked constantly how the other was doing when they awoke following the surgery. They held hands when Samantha was finally able to visit her brother in his hospital room.

Their mom was able to stay with Austin at the hospital following the surgery, while their dad was able to stay with Samantha in the hospital and during her recovery at home. Once Samantha was released from the hospital and her dad took her home, they were not able to visit the hospital again because of COVID-19 restrictions. Each patient is allowed one hospital guest. Austin Westmeyer said it might have been even worse had he had to have the surgery a year ago, when patients were not allowed any visitors.

The medical costs for both Austin and Samantha were covered by Austin’s health insurance. The family is also aware that they are blessed to be able to have the time off to spend with each other during the recovery process. Not every family in those circumstances has as much family or financial support. They also have received a lot of support from people here in Minot, some of whom raised money for the family’s expenses via a Facebook fundraiser.

Months down the road, things are starting to feel more normal. Samantha Westmeyer, who spent about a week in the hospital after the operation, said she still gets tired easily, as it takes a lot of energy to regrow a liver after a transplant. Her liver will soon be back to its normal size. Austin Westmeyer was sent home with 17 prescriptions and is returning to the clinic regularly for checkups and blood work. He will be on anti-rejection medicine for the rest of his life but eventually the number of medications will come down to a more manageable amount.

Austin, who works in marketing and sales, was laid off amid the COVID-19 pandemic, had to delay his job search during his health battle but said he hopes to return to work this fall. Samantha Westmeyer is a banker with Associated Bank. They continue to live together in Minneapolis.

Austin and Samantha also want to emphasize the need for organ donation.

Living organ donations are more rare in the United States than in other countries. They said nowhere in North Dakota is able to do them. Austin’s transplant was the fourth performed this year at the University of Minnesota Medical Center -East Bank.

Donations using livers from deceased donors are more common. Austin said one of his doctors in Minneapolis told him that two liver donations from deceased donors came from the Minot area recently.

The auto immune disease that Austin had causes a narrowing of the bile ducts and, eventually, would have caused his liver to fail when doctors were no longer able to treat the condition.

Austin and his family had long known that a liver transplant might someday be necessary, but they had hoped it might not be until he was in his 30s or early 40s.

The need became urgent when, in February, Austin spent 23 days in the hospital in two separate hospital stays. His doctors told him that it was time to consider a liver transplant. His condition was not yet serious enough to put him on a transplant list for a liver from a deceased donor, so a living donor was his best option.

A healthy, living person who is a good match can donate a portion of the liver. The liver, a regenerative organ, can grow back to its original size within three months.

Austin’s family were all tested but none except Samantha were a good match. It is hard to find a perfect organ donor match. Sibling have only a 25 percent chance of matching. Even if a person is a match, it won’t be possible unless the donor is in excellent health and young enough. Fortunately, Samantha was healthy, young, and a good match for the brother she is so close to.

The family also said organ donations from deceased donors in their 90s can save the life of a young person. All that is needed is for the liver to be healthy.

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