When Keith Karzin donated half his liver to his mother-in-law in November 2003, he wanted nothing in return except to save the life of his wife's mother and his children's grandmother.
But the 45-year-old Valencia resident has been chosen to represent Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on the Donate Life Rose Parade® Float this coming New Year's Day.
"It's going to be an honor, and I think it's important because word needs to get out that people have the power to save lives," says Karzin, noting that his children, Ashley, 12, Hannah, 10, and Garrett, 7, will see the event in person.
"They're excited. They've seen it on TV but they've never actually been to it, and they think it's pretty cool that Dad gets to do this. We're going to get the whole family out there and I think we're going to try to stay a couple of days and enjoy it. This, to me, is an event of a lifetime," says Karzin, director of Safety and Risk Management for the Saugus Union School District.
In early 2003, Sharon Dziubala's health was rapidly declining as her diseased liver deteriorated. She needed a transplant but a cadaver organ was not available. When other potential living donors were found to be incompatible, Karzin wanted to be tested, especially after he discovered during a routine physical exam that his blood type was favorable.
"My wife and I talked about it and went to my mother-in-law, but they (the in-laws) didn't want me to do it. They were really concerned because I have three young kids and they didn't want anything to happen. My attitude was, nothing's going to happen. This is going to be good. This was meant to be. We need to get you better and let's get this going," Karzin recalls, adding that he has endured a fair amount of ribbing about saving the life of his mother-in-law.
But in contrast to the stereotypical in-law relationship, Karzin and his wife, Susan, enjoy the company of Sharon and Tom, who live only minutes away. And the feeling is mutual. "From the moment my daughter started going with him (Keith), I knew he was special," says Dziubala. "He's like my son. I adore him, just like the rest of my kids."
In fact, Sharon and Tom often vacationed with Susan and Keith and were very involved in their grandchildren's lives - until Sharon became too sick to keep going.Eventually, visits had to be limited as Sharon spent more and more time having to stay in bed or lie down and rest.
Nicholas N. Nissen, M.D., assistant surgical director for liver transplantation at Cedars-Sinai's Comprehensive Transplant Center, was one of the surgeons on the teams performing the Karzin-Dziubala transplant operations on Nov. 10, 2003.
"There is a donor organ shortage in the United States and in the world, and Sharon was not likely to get a donor offer through the standard system any time in the near future. But her life was difficult and she was having an increasing number of health problems, so Keith's willingness to be a donor changed her life permanently," says Nissen. "I think Keith's story is a great one because not only did he change her life, but he changed his life. He changed his life by going through the act of donation but also because he's able to have her be part of his life for years to come. This is something she would not have had and, in turn, it is something he would not have had if it were not for living donation."
Because liver cells have the unique capacity to regenerate, a donor's organ returns to its normal size within four to six weeks, with no limitation of function. Still, because any surgery involves an element of risk, potential donors are carefully screened and educated. At Cedars-Sinai, Karzin was interviewed by a psychologist, a social worker, surgeons and other transplant specialists.
"It was probably about a three-month ordeal before the decision was made that I was a viable candidate to do this. Early on, they try to discourage you in a sense because they want to make sure that you fully understand what's at risk," says Karzin, noting that every time he had a medical or screening test, he passed it. "It was like affirmation. We just need to keep going."
"Being a living donor in any situation is clearly a sacrifice," says Nissen. "In Keith's case, we were confident when we spoke to him and were evaluating him that it was really being done without hesitation and from just the sincere hope that his mother-in-law would have a better life."
Today, Sharon Dziubala is again spending time with her grandchildren and traveling with her husband. In fact, the couple recently returned from a driving vacation to Yellowstone National Park and Mt. Rushmore.
"I feel wonderful. I feel like I did when I was 40, and I'm well over that," says Dziubala, who actually turned 69 in October. "I never thought I'd feel this well again."
"The reality is, yes, this is major surgery and, yes, it hurts," Karzin states. "But throughout the process, you know why you're doing it and that's what gets you through. And then you recover, and then you're back to normal. You can go through this process and it can have a tremendous impact on people's lives."
More than 92,000 Americans currently await life-saving organ transplants, with 17 people dying each day due to the shortage of donated organs. Every year hundreds of thousands of people need donated tissue to prevent or cure blindness, heal burns or save limbs, and one out of three people will need donated blood in their lifetime, according to Donate Life America, the national organization for donation and transplantation.