ATLANTA — When Terri Willis was 13 years old, she became one of the first pediatric liver transplant patients in Georgia. Now 31 years later, she's one of the longest surviving transplant recipients in the country.
The liver transplant survival rate decreases significantly after about five to 10 years, but three decades later Terri is still breaking barriers.
This story is about two little girls.
The first is: Terri Willis.
"I was 12, I got liver cancer. We were given a pager. And I was put on the list," she said.
Her lifeline came six months later – mid-lunch at a Huddle House.
"Sure enough they had a liver for me," Willis said.
She would be one of the first kids to get this transplant in Georgia at Children's Egleston Hospital in Atlanta. But she was ready.
"My nurse brings me a Valium. I'm 13. I don't even know what Valium is. So I asked her, 'What is this for?' And she said, 'Oh, it's to relax your nerves for the surgery.' I said, 'Give it to my mom. She needs it more than I do.'"
Wise-cracking Terri came out of surgery with a second chance at life thanks to a second little girl – a few states away.
"My donor was an 11-year-old girl from Arkansas. I don't know her family, I don't know her, but they gave me 31 years. I was able to graduate. I ran a marathon. I've seen my great nieces and nephew born. All of this stuff I wouldn't have been able to do had somebody not said yes," Willis said.
She now advocates for organ donation.
Right now, more than 116,000 people in the United States – including more than 2,000 children – are in need of an organ transplant.
Terri doesn't know much about the girl whose donation saved her life. But in her honor, she's determined to live it well.
"There are times that I didn't know if I was going to make it or not. I believe she is what kept me going. You don't realize that you can love somebody that you've never met," she said.
The pandemic has been tough on Terri – she's had to take extra precautions under the supervision of her Emory care team.
"All of it is just a small price to pay to still be here," Willis said.
Another year of being here and her sights are set on the next year.
"I saw my liver doctor last year. I asked him, I said, 'Do you know a patient who is 40 years out?' He thought about it and said 'No.' I said, 'Well stick around, you will,'" she said.
Terri ultimately wants people to know to not take life for granted. She said every step and breath is a blessing.