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“Miracle Baby” celebrating one-year anniversary of life saving transplant

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ONALASKA, Wis. - (WXOW) - After being diagnosed with Congenital Cytomegalovirus (CMV), a rare virus in newborns, Lucas Hougom fought for his life as a tiny baby until a generous living donor gave a piece of her liver to save him.

Jenny Hougom gave birth to Lucas in August 2019. He was born with petechiae, little red dots on his skin that Hougom said looked like chickenpox. She explained that in a matter of hours after his birth, the staff at Gundersen made it clear that he would need extra attention. That is when they transferred him to the NICU or Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

After a few days, Jenny and Tyler Hougom said they learned that his blood counts and platelets were extremely low. They ran a test to determine he had an infection called congenital CMV. The Hougoms explained that CMV can attack various organs in your body. For Lucas, it attacked his liver.

After nine days in the NICU, they finally got to take Lucas home. They hoped that the infection just needed time and medicine to resolve it in order to recover. However, in October, Jenny said the doctors at Gundersen told them things were not getting better and they were being transferred to doctors at Children's Hospital at UW-Madison.

"In November, after meeting with a Hepatologist, we learned that it most likely not going to get better and that Lucas was going to need a liver transplant," said Jenny.

The Hougoms stayed in the hospital with Lucas while he continued to get sicker and sicker.

"You're there. You're observing and watching the doctors do their job and you're getting updates or being told what's going on but there's no way to process that in the moment or in that time," said Jenny.

They worked to get him on the deceased donor list but because he was so tiny and not gaining weight because of the virus attacking his liver, they explained it wasn't likely to find a donor his size. The doctors recommended they reach out to family and friends to see if they could find a living donor instead. The search ended up extending the search to social media.

"You can actually cut off a piece of an adult liver and donate it to a child," said Jenny. "Our first post we were looking for somebody around the 120 pound mark that was the blood type or type O and we didn't find anyone in that first search."

The Hougoms said they had over 100 people submit applications and none were a match. At the end of December, they tried again with a second post. That time, someone new reached out who would change all of their lives forever.

Christina Wettstein, a friend of Jenny and Tyler's from high school, saw the Hougom's post on Facebook. Wettstein said the post had over 7,000 likes and she just happened to scroll past it and click.

"I always say this and I sound like a crazy person but I felt led to do it," said Wettstein. "I feel like this was meant to be."

Wettstein moved out of Onalaska after high school so she explained that she wasn't there for Lucas's birth but seeing the post, there was just something special about him.

"You are presented with all these awesome opportunities to do something good, nothing as big as this usually, but it was just like, 'How can you not?'", said Wettstein.

She is now living in North Carolina so she flew up to Madison to get tested and for the surgery. At the time of the surgery, her husband was deployed so she said it was a solo mission. Luckily, her husband's family still lives in the area as well as her sister, so she had support throughout the process.

The transplant surgery was scheduled for January 13, 2020. As if going through getting ready for a transplant surgery wasn't enough, just an hour before Lucas was scheduled to receive his new liver, his finally gave out and he began internally bleeding.

"Instead of having a worrisome day of going through transplant, we had a worrisome day of watching him have blood products pumped into him," said Tyler. "It was out of a horror movie. An hour before he was supposed to be taken and he started puking blood and bleeding. That whole joyous day was taken to resuscitate him."

"We lost it. No one can imagine the things that we saw with him," said Jenny.

The Hougoms said having a living donor was everything.

"If it wasn't for Chrissy being there and having a living donor ready, and as adamant as she was to get in there and get it done with and get him the care and the liver that he needed, our son wouldn't be here," said Tyler. "So what does it mean to have a living donor? It means life and the world to us."

Because they weren't able to do the surgery on the 13th, it was moved one day later. The Hougoms said it was a much better day than the previous. They are forever grateful for Christina's help in giving their son a chance at life. They said it is truly a testament to who she is.

"I don't know many people like that, I don't know if I would be like that, and the fact that she was, was life changing," said Tyler.

They explained that they were surrounded by family and friends holding them up through the struggle.

"We were surrounded by so many family members and friends who had come actually on the 13th because it was supposed to be a planned transplant surgery," said Jenny. "We had an entire waiting room full of 35 people that wanted to be there to support us. Those same individuals stayed all day during that super hard day, stayed overnight and were there the next day when he ultimately got to receive his transplant."

The Hougoms said the initial first few months after the surgery were tough.

"He basically almost died that day so he was as weak as you can imagine. He had his entire abdomen ripped open and had stitches all the way across. We spent the first six weeks with him in the ICU at the hospital and then an additional month after that just on the general floor," said Jenny.

They explained that they have been back and forth with admissions, maintenance procedures and some more routine things but Lucas is doing wonderful.

It has been almost exactly a year since Lucas received his transplant. The Hougoms said Lucas has gotten so strong developmentally and growth-wise. Although he is a little behind on developmental things, that is to be expected because he spent so much time on his back as a newborn.

"After the liver transplant, all of a sudden he was sitting up and he was doing tummy time and those motor things are coming along and it's fun to watch now because it's just like he is a normal kid, you would never know," said Tyler.

"I am just so proud of him to say the least," said Wettstein. "Obviously the odds were stacked against him, and Jenny and Tyler handled it with grace and strength and I can't even imagine being in their situation."

Wettstein said that Lucas is just as special as she thought he was.

"He got his chance, and he's going to make it," said Wettstein.

Although the Hougoms feel they are on the upswing of not having to be at the hospital as often, they will never be able to forget what their family fought through.

"It's something that doesn't go away. We went through it a year ago but still there are days that we tell each other 'just kind of re-living that day again,'" said Jenny. "We have vivid, vivid memories and we replay those scenarios and pieces of that January 13th day in our head all the time. I never want to forget them because it's part of his story but sometimes you just want to shut them off too."

There are not many live, liver transplants that have been done. It is a rare procedure but anyone can be tested and become a donor. To register in Wisconsin, click here. For Minnesota, click here.

Both Wettstein and the Hougoms said it is truly a miracle and the doctors at American Family Children's Hospital in Madison are one of a kind. Because Wettstein was traveling from far, the doctors worked up all the necessary tests, that typically take six weeks to complete, in just one day for her. They explained that they kept everyone informed and comfortable through the entire process.

"It's a really rare situation that it went down the way it did and the whole hospital and how they handled everything, it's just to be noted, incredible," said Wettstein. "There was so much more to it than just having the right blood type and the right weight. The fact that it really happened is a miracle. It is a miracle that he's alive."

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Rylie Kyhn

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