Lisa and William Service have been celebrating Thanksgiving since October.
But as the Forsyth County couple sat down with family for a holiday feast last week, they were particularly grateful.
“Our greatest thanks goes to the donor family and the decision they made so that Kate was able to receive her new liver,” Lisa Service said of her daughter.
The family long knew their daughter, 5, was small for her age. But for years, doctors couldn’t figure out what else was wrong. In her short life, she has had virus after virus and a liver biopsy that never led to answers.
Earlier this year, she caught a stomach bug that landed her in the hospital. It was then the Services learned their daughter suffered from liver failure. Her only hope was a transplant.
In May, Kate Service was added to a transplant list. On Oct. 1, the Service family got the call.
“You kind of feel excited that they found a match, but at the same time, you’re terrified because your child is going to go under major surgery,” Lisa Service said.
William Service explained it as “swapping one set of scary for another.”
“The road to recovery is a long one, and there are lots and lots of hurdles and milestones we have to cross,” he said. “ ... But this is a good set of worries because eventually, they will go away.”
The transplant was performed Oct. 2 and everything went smoothly.
“She was rock solid during the surgery, the liver was a great match for her and she’s doing amazingly well,” Lisa Service said. “She’s been very healthy and I think that’s the biggest reason she’s done so well with the surgery ... really, she just had a stressed-out liver that wasn’t happy.”
Having missed so much school because of the transplant, Kate Service has been in homebound kindergarten classes. Her mother has begun counting the days until “she can return to school and regular life with her friends and activities.”
Of course, for William Service, it will be “even scarier when she goes back to school because there are so many germs there.”
“Probably after a year, we’ll start relaxing a bit because hopefully after a year, the chances of rejection go down,” he said. “But any time she gets sick, the worry is going to go up.”
The recovery process hasn’t been easy, he said.
“We have to keep Kate as though she was a brand-new newborn and we’ve just taken her home from the hospital,” he said.
This proved difficult early on when Kate Service’s brother, Owen, was sent home from school with a fever. He was sequestered upstairs, but that separation was necessary, as “Kate’s immune system (was) very suppressed,” the children’s mother said.
Both parents said Owen has been a “great big brother” through it all.
“One of the first things she asked when she came out of surgery is where he was,” William Service said. “They really care about each other and that’s been a big reason he’s been able to handle it as well as he has. They really rely on having each other there.”
But despite the attention their daughter has needed, the Services have also made time for their son. One parent has always been home with him, a commitment that had Lisa Service taking time off work “so we’d be able to juggle it.”
That time away from work also allowed Lisa Service to hold a few local fundraisers for the Children’s Organ Transplant Association in her daughter’s name.
“We’ve been able to raise a little over $14,000 so far, which has been great,” she said. “It’s overwhelming with gratitude that there are such great people in this world.”
William Service said in looking at the list of people who’ve donated, “some of them we don’t recognize.”
“It’s been both the generosity of strangers and our friends and family,” he said. “It’s been a humbling experience to go through something like this, and to have people without questioning — and sometimes without even being asked — volunteer their time and their labor to help us do things, and to bring us things and donate money ... it’s something that’s very difficult to put into words.”
Money raised for the organization can be used to help reimburse the family for medical bills, which the Service family will face for years, since Kate Service will be on medications her whole life.
“I imagine we’ll meet her deductible every year... and every year, we’ll pretty much have to pay her deductible and medications,” he said. “We’ll always feel more protective of her because of what she’s gone through, but without trying to get her to be worried about it because she needs to live her life as normally as she possibly can.”
Because Kate Service was still recovering, Thanksgiving was going to be a germ-free one, with only Lisa Service’s parents attending. It was a small celebration, with a lot of gratitude, she said.
“We are so very thankful that she is responding so well to the new liver and her treatment plan,” she said. “Our lives are returning to a new normal, which is great.”