"You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons. And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes.” – Walter M. Schirra Sr., father of astronaut Wally Schirra
Thomas Locke is a giver. Whatever he has, he’s willing to share it, says his wife, Jessica.
“That includes money, time, and organs,” she said with a laugh. “Some people will give you the shirt off their back. Thomas will give you the liver out of his body.”
And that’s just what he did.
On May 9, 2022, the day after Mother’s Day, Thomas was wheeled into an operating room at UT Southwestern’s William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital, where transplant surgeons removed 60-70% of his healthy liver to give to his stepfather – “Papa Mike” Sims – who was being prepped in an OR nearby.
But this wasn’t the first time Thomas had chosen to give a loved one a second chance at life.
In 2010, he donated his left kidney to his father, who had been on dialysis for nearly a year.
“Donating once is selfless. Twice? That’s truly extraordinary,” said Madhukar S. Patel, M.D., Surgical Director of the UT Southwestern Living-Donor Liver Transplantation Program and part of the team that performed the successful operation on Thomas and his stepfather. “He has given the most meaningful gift you can give somebody – the gift of life. And now he’s done it twice.”
Thomas, 42, says he’s just grateful living-donor transplantation is an option.
“It almost seems like a pipe dream, right?” he said. “They can take an organ out of your body and put it into somebody else, and it works. That’s amazing! I’m just thankful to the doctors and nurses who have dedicated their lives to doing this.”
He also believes if more people knew about living-organ donation, particularly that your liver regenerates to nearly full size in less than four months, they’d consider it. Having a living donor also reduces a patient’s risk of dying while waiting for a deceased liver by more than 30%.
“If people realized they could keep their father alive, or their stepfather, or anyone they love by donating, I think they’d do it,” he said. “Family was a big motivating factor for me, and I believe there are a lot of giving people out there, probably more than we realize.”
'A lot more to lose’
In 2010, Thomas’ decision to donate a kidney to his father seemed like a no-brainer. Young, healthy, and single, Thomas’ only real concern was buying more time for his dad.
And following the transplant at a hospital near Nashville, Tennessee, where Thomas and his family still live, father and son got eight more years together. Richard “Tom” Locke died in 2018 from heart failure.
“Every second we had after the transplant felt meaningful,” Thomas said. “I wouldn’t change my decision for the world. And he got to meet my daughter.”
Choosing to donate a portion of his liver 12 years later, however, was not as straightforward.
Now married and the father of two – daughter Evelyn, 4 ½, and son Arlin, 3 – Thomas said he had “a lot more to lose. So, the decision wasn’t just, ‘boom,’ we’re doing this.”
When Thomas first mentioned to Jessica he was considering donating again, she felt a rush of emotions. She was surprised, scared, but ultimately proud.
“We had all the adult conversations two people are supposed to have and we considered the big question, ‘what if something happens to you,’” she said. They also discussed the complex logistics. Mike and Thomas’ mother, Marsha, live in Chandler, Texas, about 90 minutes east of Dallas. Thomas and Jessica live in White House, Tennessee, 30 minutes outside Nashville.
With pre- and postoperative care, Thomas would have to spend at least four weeks in Dallas, near UT Southwestern, and Jessica, who works full time as a supervisor at a toxicology lab, would have to assume all the responsibilities on the home front.
“Realistically, I know him, and if this was something he could do, he was going to do it,” Jessica said. “My husband is rather heroic that way.”
A surgical symphony
So, Thomas filled out the questionnaire and began the process of becoming a living-liver donor.
Arjmand Mufti, M.D., Medical Director of Living-Liver Transplantation at UT Southwestern, evaluated Thomas and found him to be an ideal donor.
“He is a very sophisticated patient because he's been through this before,” said Dr. Mufti. “He had no trepidation, and he understood the risks and the benefits of living donation. The main thing we told him was that his safety and well-being were of paramount importance to us.”
But Thomas said he felt confident about his decision – and his motivations – to donate to Mike.
“I lost my grandparents when I was young. And I want my kids to have Mike around as long as possible. He is an awesome grandfather,” said Thomas, who bonded with Mike after he married Marsha more than 20 years ago. They love to talk sports, politics, movies, and they share a strong belief in faith and family. “We’ve had some epic journeys together,” Thomas added. “I just love him, and I didn’t know anything else to do.”
Receiving a liver from a living donor was Mike’s best, and maybe only chance, at survival.
His MELD (model for end-stage liver disease) score was not high enough to place him near the top of the UNOS list for a deceased-donor liver, but he had significant complications of cirrhosis, which were greatly impacting his health.
After two delays in scheduling – Thomas was diagnosed with COVID and later West Nile virus – the operation took place May 9, the day after Mother’s Day. And it went off like a well-timed symphony, with two full surgical teams working in perfect harmony.
Dr. Patel and Steven Hanish, M.D., Surgical Director of UTSW’s Liver Transplantation Program, began removing 60-70% of Thomas’ healthy liver – dividing the right lobe to give to the recipient. Then, in a nearby surgical suite, Parsia Vagefi, M.D., Chief of the Division of Surgical Transplantation, and Jigesh A. Shah, M.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Surgery, began removing Mike’s liver.
The donor surgical team is careful to make sure the arteries, veins, and bile ducts are all very well mapped and divided precisely so the donor is safe and the donated liver can be transplanted in the recipient. The operations each last about four or five hours.
"Success in living donor liver transplantation requires seamless teamwork,” said Dr. Patel, who remarked that “it is the donors who are wanting to help, and the team that has the privilege making their wish come to fruition.”
Only about 60 hospitals in the U.S. perform this highly specialized surgery, according to UNOS – and most are concentrated at fewer than 10 programs. UT Southwestern’s Living-Donor Liver Transplantation Program has grown since its inception in 2019.
“UT Southwestern knocked it out of the park. It’s been like they’ve been doing this kind of operation for 100 years,” Thomas said. “Everybody there has been top notch. The doctors, nurses, social workers, the coordinators – they are amazing people, because they make this kind of miracle possible.”
'He looks like a brand-new person'
As Father’s Day 2022 approaches, Thomas and Mike are well on the road to recovery.
Following their surgeries and five-day hospital stays, they lived at an Airbnb near UTSW for four weeks and had regular outpatient appointments for close monitoring of their labs and overall progress.
Thomas recently returned to Tennessee and is back driving, playing with the kids, and working on weekends as a body piercing artist at his best friend’s tattoo shop. He will continue to be monitored in the transplant clinic at UTSW.
Unlike the kidney that Thomas’ donated to his father, which was removed entirely, the 30% of his liver that was left after donating to Mike has mostly regenerated. The liver is the only organ in the human body that can pull off such a wondrous feat.
“The liver regenerates quickly,” said Dr. Patel. "Usually we estimate about six to eight weeks."
Mike’s recovery has been “boring” so far, which is exactly how Dr. Mufti wants it. No complications and his liver function has been perfect. Like all transplant recipients, he will receive care and monitoring from UT Southwestern for the rest of his life.
“He looks like a brand-new person,” said Thomas. “Once they get those organs, they just start doing great. He’s really humbled by the whole thing.”
Thomas is quick to point out this organ donation, and the one 12 years ago, are hardly selfless. If anything, he hopes that sharing his story will inspire others to consider becoming living donors.
“By donating my kidney and a portion of my liver, I got to help two people that I love,” he said. “But it also gave me more time with each of them. And it helps my mom, my kids, my whole family. I can’t imagine a better Father’s Day gift than that.”
To learn more about UT Southwestern’s Living-Donor Liver Transplant Program, please visit our website.