patient perspective

Atlanta residents Shannon “Christ” Harris and his fiancée, Jessica Garrett, are all smiles following his liver transplant earlier in 2023 at VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center. In helping her fiancé, Garrett was the fifth living donor to participate in a robotic liver transplant since April, making Hume-Lee the only center on the East Coast to perform such transplants. Photo: VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center

Fiancée Becomes Living Liver Donor to Her Beloved Husband-to-Be

Shannon “Christ” (pronounced Chris) Harris’ abdominal pain reached the point in November 2022 where he couldn’t bend down to put on shoes. He and his fiancée, Jessica Garrett, thought it was a good idea to get checked out at a nearby Atlanta emergency room.

It’s kind of ridiculous how fast VCU Health got everything done. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world where we could have gotten that turnaround.

Shannon “Christ” Harris

Once there, he was admitted overnight, and scans the next day revealed a likely diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common form of liver cancer.

“They said, ‘You can’t leave this floor,’” Harris said. He remained in the hospital and a week later, surgeons removed 75% of his liver in a procedure called a resection, in hope of removing the cancer along with the organ. The liver grows back within a few weeks.

The couple figured the worst was behind them. But a follow-up scan in March showed the cancer had returned.

“They told me the only way out was a liver transplant,” Harris said. “They immediately referred us to VCU Health.”

Harris’ diagnosis was later upgraded to fibrolamellar HCC, an ultra-rare form of cancer primarily occurring in young adults. Though transplantation is a method of treatment — due to a national waiting list of over 10,000 patients, a scoring system putting the sickest candidates at the top of the list and the fact he’d already undergone a resection — Harris would die waiting.

Shannon “Christ” Harris is an abstract artist. This artwork, titled GRAF, is the only painting Harris says he has completed since being diagnosed. Photo courtesy Shannon “Christ” Harris

For Harris, a musician and abstract artist, the only viable transplant option was to find a living donor. Lucky for him, he didn’t have to go far to find one.

“The second they said he could get a living donor,” his fiancée, Garrett, said, “I wanted to go get tested.”

A week after learning the cancer had returned, the couple made the eight-hour drive from Atlanta to VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center in Richmond, where Garrett — despite having an incompatible blood type — was ruled a healthy living donor candidate for a partner she’s known for a decade.

“The fact that she wanted to do the surgery is really the starting criteria for finding a liver donor,” said Joel Wedd, M.D., Hume-Lee’s medical director of liver transplant. “The matching process for livers is much less rigorous from a biochemical perspective than it is in other organs because the liver is a relatively immune-tolerant organ when transplanted. It still has risk of rejection, but it’s not as high.”

While the donor was lined up, the question of who would pay for the complicated surgery was not.

“This was a difficult, apex-level transplant case. We just don’t see cases like Christ. His surgery was so on the extreme edge of what we do — you typically don’t transplant people who have had a resection, or recurrence after a resection,” said David Bruno, M.D., interim chair and surgical director of liver transplant at Hume-Lee. “But from the moment I met him, I knew I was going to figure out a way to get this transplant done.”

For almost two months, the couple and the Hume-Lee team went back and forth with Harris’ insurance to make the case for covering the transplant. At this point, he was planning to move forward with radiofrequency ablation, a minimally invasive procedure that shrinks the size of tumors or other growths in the body, when Bruno received news that changed the trajectory of Harris’ treatment plan.

Dr. Bruno’s phone rang on a Friday afternoon when he was at a farm-supply store buying grease for his tractor. It was the medical director from the insurance company. With patient privacy in mind, he popped into an empty office at the store to take the call.

“I was anxious because we had gotten some denials. But I talked to the medical director, and he said he was approving it,” said Dr. Bruno, his eyes welling up. “I remember getting really emotional about it. Being able to help someone like that is the greatest.”

Since the June transplant, Harris and Garrett have remained in Central Virginia, renting an apartment in Old Towne Petersburg. He typically has follow-up appointments in Richmond on Thursdays.

Today, Harris is considered cancer-free. He’ll be scanned every three months for the foreseeable future.

“It’s kind of ridiculous how fast VCU Health got everything done,” Harris said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world where we could have gotten that turnaround. Three months for a liver transplant is unheard of.”