Metro

THOMAS FARRAGHER

A very sick girl finds an unlikely savior

Keene, N.H., police officer Steve Tenney (right) plays with Sloan St. James, the baby who received part of his liver. At left in the child’s Bourne kitchen are her mother, Sarah, and father, Chris.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Keene, N.H., police officer Steve Tenney (right) plays with Sloan St. James, the baby who received part of his liver. At left in the child’s Bourne kitchen are her mother, Sarah, and father, Chris.

If the baby had been a boy, his name would have been Grayson. But moments after Sarah St. James gave birth to a beautiful little girl in April, she wondered aloud in the birthing suite about naming her Sloan.

“She was facing my mom when I said that,’’ St. James recalled. “And the baby gave a half-smile and I said, ‘Now, we just have to name her Sloan.’ ’’

So Sloan it was, a happy and content newborn with impossibly long fingers — 7-pound, 6-ounce playmate for her older brother Carter, who doted on her and was a constant presence by her side.

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And then, by summertime, something seemed not quite right. The baby developed what her parents called a “Buddha belly.’’ Her eyes were frequently yellow. Doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital confirmed the worst: Sloan was quite ill. Her liver was failing. In fact, she was near death.

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What happened next is the story of parental terror, medical wizardry by world-class surgeons, and an act of impossible-to-repay generosity by a family acquaintance, a police officer from New Hampshire who stepped forward to save the life of a child he’d never met.

“I’m kind of a sucker for kids and old people,’’ Steve Tenney told me. “The idea of putting your body through something like this when you’re perfectly healthy is nerve-racking. But if you can help a baby like that, you’re going to do it.’’

With the exception of the brain, the liver is the busiest of human organs. In an adult, it’s 6 inches long and weighs about 3½ pounds. It performs some 300 functions, from producing proteins that clot our blood to cleansing many toxins produced by our food.

And Sloan’s liver wasn’t working right.

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The baby was afflicted with something called biliary atresia, a rare condition affecting just 1 in 18,000 newborns. The bile ducts in the liver become scarred, which shuts their normal openings. Digestive fluid becomes blocked in the liver. That can lead to irreversible damage to the tissues and eventual liver failure.

“Sloan’s bile ducts were not allowing bile to come out of the liver,’’ explained Dr. Christine Lee, a transplant hepatologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, home to one of the nation’s largest pediatric liver transplant programs. “Her condition was rapidly deteriorating. She was quite ill.’’

Sloan was evaluated at Children’s over two weeks in the summer, then brought home briefly, until her condition worsened. At first, a deceased donor was a possibility. She moved up on the transplant list.

“But she was so sick, we couldn’t wait around for a cadaver,’’ Sarah said. A posting on social media implored friends, relatives, and acquaintances to help.

Steve Tenney, a 40-year-old Army veteran who joined the Keene Police Department in 1999, saw the posting after his wife called it to his attention. His brother’s wife had gone to school with the St. Jameses.

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Tenney’s a football coach at Monadnock Regional Middle School in Swanzey, N.H., and his season was about to begin. Still, he filled out an online survey posted by Lahey Hospital & Medical Center’s living donor program. Anything for a baby.

The process is rigorous and exacting, and includes a psychological assessment.

“We don’t want donors who feel they are being pushed or coerced,’’ said Dr. Yee Lee Cheah, director of Lahey’s living donor program. “We want to make sure they are psychologically ready for a major procedure. They are undergoing major surgery that is of no physical benefit to them. That can be quite stressful for donors.’’

Sarah St. James wiped off her daughter’s face.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Sarah St. James wiped off her daughter’s face.

As preoperative assessments continued, Tenney surmounted every hurdle.

Sloan St. James had found her donor — that cop in Keene with two kids of his own.

“My head was spinning and I was like: What the hell am I doing?’’ Tenney said. “Honestly, I was nervous. Up until this procedure I hadn’t been to a doctor except for some stitches in about 10 years. I’d never had surgery like this. I didn’t know what to think.’’

On Sept. 8, Tenney was at Lahey hospital in Burlington, where Dr. Cheah went to work, removing a section of his liver during a two-hour operation whose success rate is very high.

“We are facilitating a life-saving act,’’ Dr. Cheah said. “We’re all part of a team and our aim is to save this baby’s life.’’

A palm-sized portion of Tenney’s liver was placed in a specialized container, packed with ice, electrolytes, and preservation fluid. An organ bank coordinator was at the ready to speed the donated organ to Sloan, whose surgery was proceeding simultaneously at Children’s Hospital, 20 miles away.

The operation to save her life began at 7:40 a.m. As Sarah and Chris St. James — classmates in the Sandwich High School class of 2002 — held vigil in the waiting room, a nurse delivered updates every 90 minutes. It was eight hours of anxiety and frayed nerves. And then life-changing news: Success.

“It was amazing,’’ Sarah St. James said. “We were so thankful. We all started crying. My husband was sobbing. It was incredible.’’

In the weeks since part of Steve Tenney’s liver was implanted into Sloan, there have been periods of rejection and treatment with steroids. But Sloan St. James, once on the brink of death, is smiling again.

“She’s doing great,’’ her mother said.

And the little baby has a new friend who is now part of the St. James family. The baby and her donor met two weeks after the surgery.

“He held her,’’ Sarah said. “He’s like a funny guy but not a man of a ton of words. It’s almost surreal that a part of him is now a part of her.’’

“It reminds us that there are amazing and good people in this world,’’ Sloan’s grateful mother said. “You turn on the TV and you see a scary world. But at the end of the day, there are still people like Steven who will do such selfless things. I say it’s a miracle because that’s how I feel.’’

Tenney, who felt like he’d been run over by a train after the surgery, felt something completely different the first time he held the girl who is now connected to him in a mortal way.

“She’s an adorable little baby,’’ he said. “I hope she enjoys a normal, healthy life. That’s why I did it. You’re a human being. You help a baby. As an adult, that’s what we’re here for. She needs a normal life like she would have had if this didn’t happen.

“But we will always be connected.’’

To which Sloan’s parents, in this season of giving and light, gladly say: Amen.

“It’s almost surreal that a part of him is now a part of her,” says Sarah St. James.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
“It’s almost surreal that a part of him is now a part of her,” says Sarah St. James.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.