It was August 2014, in Lusaka, Zambia, and Pasina Mazoka-Tyler and Kern Tyler were growing worried. Their 3-week-old had jaundice that wasn’t going away.
A doctor recommended tiny Malambo Mazoka-Tyler be seen by a liver specialist in Johannesburg. But “things work a little slower” in Zambia, explained Tyler. “We had a birth record but not a birth certificate, nor did we have a passport for him. We spent 24 to 48 hours trying to get him paperwork just to fly to South Africa.”
Malambo started vomiting the night before their flight. The couple rushed him to the local hospital, where their baby (now 3 months old) was diagnosed with malaria.
“We got home from the hospital [at] 3, 4 a.m., heads spinning, exhausted,” Tyler said. Hours later, they boarded a flight to Johannesburg.
When the liver specialist saw Malambo, the infant was “quite limp,” Tyler said. “The doctor gave us this talk how this does not end well in a lot of cases.”
After Malambo recovered from malaria, a scan revealed he had biliary atresia — a liver blockage — and would need a special procedure. But during that procedure, the doctor found Malambo had cirrhosis of the liver. “He was certainly going to need a transplant,” Tyler said.
Tyler, who was born in Stoughton and raised in Brockton and Boston, immediately knew he had to return to Boston. A liver transplant in South Africa would cost $1 million, he said. “And not for nothing, when we looked at the number here, without insurance, it cost $800,000,” Tyler recalled.
The family boarded a flight the day after Christmas, and had an appointment with Boston Children’s Hospital by January. By February 2015, Malambo was on the transplant list. Then they waited.
“Malambo became very skinny,” Tyler said. “He had ascites, a bloated belly. He lost all the water in his face, you could see his bones. His eyes were bright yellow.”
One Sunday in June, the phone rang. Boston Children’s Hospital had found Malambo a liver.
“I didn’t know what to say; I was frozen for a moment,” Mazoka-Tyler recalled.
In the waiting room, they met another family.
“Turns out that was the young man who got the other piece of the liver,” Mazoka-Tyler said. “They’re liver brothers.”
Malambo split a liver with a teenage patient. “The liver is the only organ in the body that regenerates,” Tyler explained. “For an infant, they can give them the smallest part of the lobe, and that lobe grows into a full liver.”
Today, Malambo is a healthy 6-year-old who sprinted home from a nearby park last week for a Zoom interview with a reporter. The first-grader bolted down a glass of water, played with his eyeglasses, and talked a bit about himself.
His favorite sport? “Hockey, of course. It’s on ice.”
His favorite food? “Oxtail, rice, and nshima,” a dish from his native Zambia.
He likes soccer, baseball, TV, Legos, and asking Alexa to play music. He wants to be a TV producer when he grows up. He has no memory of being sick.
Malambo now takes two medications — down from the 18 he took pre-transplant. And he’s preparing to walk in the Eversource Walk for Boston Children’s Hospital. This year’s virtual fund-raiser is Sunday. The family has walked annually for the past six years. Malambo was in a stroller for the first few years, and has walked the past three, getting stronger each time.
Registered participants can walk anywhere, anytime to help raise funds for kids and families like Malambo’s. This year, Malambo and his extended family are walking and fund-raising as “Malambo’s Warriors.”
Tyler is a UMass Amherst graduate who “always wanted to go to the continent,” he said. A friend suggested Zambia, and he met Pasina there in 2010. But the family — including Malambo’s brother Kambela, 14, and sister Nomai, 3 — has remained in Boston since the transplant to be near the hospital.
“We will forever be in debt to Boston Children’s — the doctors, the nurses, the parking attendants, the cleaning staff, the folks that work in the cafeteria,” Tyler said. “Words can’t truly describe how thankful we are.”