It’s been 35 years since New Yorker Lily Allen received a life-saving liver transplant from late 2-year-old Butler County resident Matthew Bemis, yet her appreciation of the donation from the child’s family hasn’t diminished a single bit.
“Honestly, each day I am just so thankful for it – I’m just so incredibly lucky,” Allen said of the donation. “I try to not take each day for granted, which of course just happens naturally with us being human beings. But I am just so thankful for each day and I have a great life, and I am just very lucky. Each year about this time I start reflecting more, and I am just so thankful for everything."
Allen at birth was diagnosed with a life-threatening benign liver tumor. At a year old, she could no longer sit up or even wear a diaper because of the fluid built up in her abdomen. Breathing became nearly impossible and a liver transplant was really the only option.
But things were far different than now, and with infant liver transplant still in its infancy, it was a real long shot that the child would receive what she needed to survive. But she did, and now she is the embodiment of success regarding infant liver transplant, being the longest-living, single-liver-transplant recipient in the world.
Matthew Bemis died after he wandered away from a family lakeside barbecue and fell into water and drowned. Despite the tragic circumstances, Rising City natives Milton and Janet Bemis didn’t hesitate to take action, doing what they thought was right even as anguish and despair crashed down upon them.
“After several days we realized that Matthew was no longer with us,” Milt said. “ … And we were able to understand that Matthew was no longer with us. And that was on a Tuesday, and we kept him on life support and medicine and the ventilator was keeping him alive ...
“There were a number of tests on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday (following the accident), and Tuesday we accepted the fact he was no longer with us.”
The couple soon learned that there was a young child from an impoverished family in Tucson, Arizona, that was in dire need of a liver transplant. Actually, a nationwide plea was being made from the family at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center desperately looking for a donor.
“By Tuesday evening we knew that there was going to be a transplant,” Janet said. “And UCLA flew in Wednesday afternoon."
At that time, Janet said that the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center was just starting a liver transplant program and that the lead doctor was given one year to complete six transplants. If it wasn’t a success, Janet said that the program was going to be scrapped.
“That first year he did approximately 12 or 13,” Janet said, with Milt adding that Lily was the second or third.
One of Lily’s first notable meetings with the Bemises occurred on her fifth birthday in Rising City, followed by visits in Washington D.C and New York in 2008 when she was wed to her husband, Brian.
“She got married on Aug. 8, and that is the day that she calls her second birthday,” Milt said, referencing the anniversary of Matthew's passing, “… They had us (at the wedding) stand in the receiving line and she introduced us to all the people that came through as her donor parents. And that was very special. And we got an awful lot of hugs.”
The Bemises, who now live in David City, for years have traveled around the state discussing the importance of organ donation at schools, various other venues and really hitting the subject hard with anyone willing to hear them out.
“We always talk to people who have lost loved ones who donate, and then also to others who didn’t,” Milt said. “So we emphasize - talk to your family in advance, because in a hospital in the middle of a catastrophic event, it’s a terrible time to have to even discuss it or think about it (organ donation).”
Fortunately for Lily, the Bemises relied on their strong faith and gut instinct to make arguably the toughest decision of their lives. That action gave Lily a new, sustainable life.
Allen said that she still takes a daily regimen of anti-rejection medications, has blood work completed frequently and checks in regularly with a liver transplant center located just a few hours away from the small village of Central Square, New York, that she and her husband call home.
Even though she’s doing well, she said she knows there’s always a chance that her tides could change for the worse. But it’s something she doesn’t dwell upon.
“There are no guarantees,” Allen said. “There is always the case in front of you that you might need a new one (liver) if you have to get one and if you are fortunate enough to get one … But my set of norms has been pretty much different than anyone else’s.”
More than three decades later, Allen still looks forward to seeing the family that played a role in saving her life, as well as to talking with the couple every few months – whether through text or a phone call.
Ultimately, she wants them to always know their value in her eyes.
“It is so heartbreaking what they lost, it really is, and it’s important to me for them to know how much I value what they were able to do in their darkest moment,” Allen said. “Every day I am thankful that I got to live past (the age of) 2 and that I have a house and that I rescue animals and that I have the greatest husband in the world. Not everybody gets that opportunity, and I am certainly very blessed.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at email@example.com.