Isaac Overson's Story
10 year old Boy Receives Life-Saving Liver Transplant at NewYork-Presbyterian After Being Turned Down By Multiple Hospitals
An avid soccer player, 10-year-old Isaac Overson returned from soccer practice when his parents first noticed something was wrong. A rash, swelling in the face and lips, and a distended stomach had the Arizona-based family worried.
“Isaac started to puff up and swell,” says father Craig Overson, who took his son to urgent care where he received antihistamines and was told to return in 24 hours. The next day, doctors did an ultrasound and saw something in his abdomen that didn’t look right. He was sent to a local hospital for more testing and it was discovered that he had a softball-size growth in his liver. A biopsy confirmed fibrolamellar liver cancer (FLHCC).
Although Craig and Krystal Overson were blindsided by the terrible news about their son, they never gave up hope. “We were confident that we’d find a solution, that God had more things in store for him,” says Craig.
Doctors felt the best plan would be to shrink the tumor with chemotherapy to a size that would allow for its removal and then perform a liver transplant. The mass was so big that it had even grown into the hepatic veins—three large veins that return blood from the liver back to the heart—and doctors warned that a transplant would only be possible if the tumor was removed from the hepatic vein.
After six rounds of chemotherapy, Craig and Krystal Overson were told that the mass was non-removable and Isaac would not be a viable transplant candidate—in other words, there was no cure for their son’s life-threatening condition.
"We kept getting the same answers from different teams across country. Some surgeons said that they were confident that their team could do this, but their institution would not allow them to take us on."
Never Give Up
The Overson family wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Craig put his job on hold to devote all of his time studying and learning about this disease and focusing on centers that specialize in this type of cancer. “I committed all of my time to finding a way to save our son. I sent Isaac’s scans to multiple hospitals, surgeons, and clinics to see if they would be able and willing to treat Isaac,” says Craig.
As the Oversons traveled around the country seeking out evaluations from all of the top children’s hospitals and pediatric liver transplant programs, they soon realized that they were getting the same answer everywhere. Most programs felt Isaac’s case was too risky due to the hepatic vein being blocked and the chance for tumor recurrence even after the liver transplant.
“We kept getting the same answers from different teams across country. Some surgeons said that they were confident that their team could do this, but their institution would not allow them to take us on. This continued at every hospital with the exception of NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center,” says Craig who received a phone call from NewYork-Presbyterian letting him know that they could perform the “risky” transplant surgery that could save Isaac.
Transplant Team Takes On Challenging Case
Soon, the Oversons were on a plane from Arizona to New York City where Craig underwent a comprehensive evaluation at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center to see if he was a living donor match for his son. Evaluations ranging from blood and urine tests to an electrocardiogram, chest X-ray, and CT scan revealed that Craig was indeed a match.
"NewYork-Presbyterian is willing to take the risk of saving a life, even when the odds are not in their favor. It is about the people, and that is what sets them apart from all the others."
Craig’s surgery was performed by Benjamin Samstein, MD, Chief of Liver Transplantation and Hepatobiliary Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian & Weill Cornell Medicine and a world-renowned pioneer in minimally invasive liver surgery. Isaac’s liver transplant was performed by multi-organ transplant pioneer Tomoaki Kato, MD, Surgical Director of Adult and Pediatric Liver and Intestinal Transplantation at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. The pioneering liver transplant team wasted no time after they learned that Craig was a living-donor match and on January 15, 2019, Craig gave a portion of his liver to Isaac.
“In less than a month, we went from being told “no cure” from every hospital, to NewYork-Presbyterian giving my son [a portion of] my 39-year-old “new liver”. So many hospitals are afraid to take on risky cases because losing a patient would look bad for their numbers. I can honestly say that NewYork-Presbyterian doesn’t think that way,” says Craig.
Isaac’s transplant lasted about 8 hours. Before the transplant, Isaac’s transplant team let him choose from a selection of superhero stickers. Isaac chose Spiderman and every doctor and nurse in the operating room adorned a spiderman sticker on their shirt. Krystal held her son’s hand as he was wheeled away to the operating room, waiting and worrying until news broke that Isaac’s transplant was successful.
Craig’s surgery lasted about four hours. Because of Dr. Samstein’s expertise in laparoscopic living donor transplant surgery, Craig experienced less pain, a shorter hospital stay, less blood loss, and an accelerated recovery compared with traditional transplantation methods.
“It is so amazing that there is minimal impact on the donor and the benefit to the patient is so worth it. Yes, there was pain but it is temporary,” says Craig, who was able to have his living donor surgery and see his son within four days.
“Dr. Samstein understood that I needed to get over there and see my boy. He helped me understand what the requirements were to walk, eat, and drink and so that was my mission,” says Craig. “I will never forget the moment I first walked into Isaac’s intensive care room and saw him sleeping calmly. He looked so good that you would not have known the battle that he had just gone through four days earlier.
A New Lease on Life
Three years later, Isaac and Craig are thriving and still keep in touch with Drs. Kato and Samstein. Both father and son had a series of follow-up visits at NewYork-Presbyterian during the first year after their living donor liver transplant surgery. Now, Isaac does routine bloodwork every couple of months at a local hospital in Arizona and the reports are sent to Dr. Kato and the transplant team. He remains cancer-free.
"At the one-year anniversary of Isaac’s transplant, we hung the bell at our house and had a big party. Now we ring the bell every day."
“There is a cancer-free bell that you ring when you go through chemotherapy. At the one-year anniversary of Isaac’s transplant, we hung it at our house and had a big party. Now we ring the bell every day. Isaac is doing great. He was the shortest 10-year-old in the country before … This year he shot up 7 inches and his face has shrunken down to a regular teenage boy face,” says Craig.
The Oversons were very cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic because as a recent transplant recipient, Isaac was particularly vulnerable to any colds or illnesses. Isaac is now fully vaccinated and back in school which, “is huge because he was not doing well being isolated,” says Craig. Although doctors initially advised against playing soccer because of a possible blow to his stomach, Isaac has now been given the green light and is debating between baseball and soccer.
“I recommend NewYork-Presbyterian to anybody and everybody. They have a very special place in my family’s heart. The team of doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian are researching, attending conferences, gleaning as much as they can and are willing to take the risk of saving a life, even when the odds are not in their favor. That’s what sets them apart from all of the others,” says Craig
Give the Gift of Donation
Given the current liver transplant shortage, live donations are desperately needed. For 14-year-old Isaac, the life-saving liver donation meant everything.
Isaac’s father Craig urges others to consider donating an organ. To register to donate a life-saving organ, go to https://donatelife.ny.gov/ref/NYPWebsite/.