RIDGELAND, Miss. -- Melissa and Kevin Fugate were told something was wrong with their daughter, Vivian Maria, when the infant went for her first checkup at two weeks.
“She was actually thriving and a healthy child as far as we could tell,” Melissa Fugate said. “No reason to suspect anything was wrong. The skin color didn’t make me think anything was wrong. I’m darker-skinned (from Mumbai, India). Kevin is not.”
“The doctor did a routine exam, touched her belly,” Kevin Fugate said. “He realized the liver was a whole lot hotter than it should have been. That’s when the tests started. He sent us to University of Mississippi Medical Center for more lab work.”
At eight weeks, Vivi Fugate was diagnosed with Biliary Atresia, a life-threatening condition in infants in which the bile ducts inside or outside the liver do not have normal openings. The first option was the Kasai procedure, which involves removing the blocked bile ducts and gallbladder and replacing them with a segment the child’s own small intestine.
“It takes place before you are put on the transplant list,” Melissa Fugate said. “The hope is that the liver will regenerate. But if it didn’t, then you put them on the list. When Vivi was diagnosed, (her liver) was too far gone to recover — the Kasai procedure failed.”
The Kasai procedure was in October 2009. A month later Vivi couldn’t keep food or medicine down and slept poorly. A UMMC gastroenterologist recommended a liver transplant, and the family went to the University of Alabama Birmingham for paperwork and evaluations. They were put on standby and told it could be days, weeks or even months before a match became available.
The call came barely a month later, on Christmas Eve.
The transplant team worked all night and completed the surgery on Christmas Day. Vivi, who will turn eight in July, is a second-grader at St. Anthony Catholic School in Madison. She’s an active little girl with a quick smile, but that’s not to say the past seven years have been easy.
“She has had a couple of more surgeries,” Kevin Fugate said. “Scar tissue develops — you see yellow in her eyes and wonder if the whole liver thing is starting again. But it was easily corrected. She will be on immunosuppression (drugs) indefinitely. Dental care is extremely important. She was on iron and steroids (which wears down tooth enamel).
“She’s not to eat grapefruit. It would interact with all the medication she’s on, potentially cause kidney failure. The medication has to be finely balanced. Too low, and there’s a rejection. Too high and there’s kidney failure. Because she’s on immunosuppression she can pick up illnesses. This will be tougher on her — she can’t have the normal vaccines healthy kids can.”
Vivi sunburns easily because of her medication, and her parents keep her away from anyone who’s sick — Melissa Fugate said the teachers at St. Anthony have been very helpful in that way. The couple has found both emotional support and crucial medical tips at a yearly transplant camp in Alexandria, Alabama. It’s a way for older kids to share with younger patients as well as for parents to commiserate and compare notes.
“Faith definitely makes a difference. We figure we had to be blessed,” Kevin Fugate said. “Vivi was put on the transplant list, and two weeks later the transplant happened.
Although Christmas will always be a landmark moment for the Fugates because of the timing of Vivi’s liver transplant, Melissa Fugate will cherish every Mother’s Day she gets to spend with her daughter.
“We’ve had so much support,” Melissa said. “We’ve seen other children who suffered before they got the transplant. Vivi didn’t. She’s a miracle. It’s a joy to see her grow up. God is good.”