Teen Swims to Success After Liver Transplant

Watching Miya French glide effortlessly through the water, you’d never guess that she has overcome serious health challenges. The Novato 13-year-old swims six days a week, lap after lap, mile after mile. Her dedication has paid off. This summer, Miya won multiple medals and broke two world records at the World Transplant Games in Spain.

“It’s amazing how the doctors at UCSF .... really come together as a team to think about Miya as a whole and allow her to do what she loves.”  - Kazumi, Miya’s mother

At just 8 weeks old, tests revealed that Miya had biliary atresia, a condition that caused her liver’s bile duct to clog, creating a dangerous build-up of toxins in her system. She quickly had surgery to open the clogged duct, but it was only a temporary solution; to grow up healthy and strong, Miya would need a liver transplant.

Miya spent a year on the transplant list, her condition deteriorating by the day. She couldn’t attend kindergarten—even a simple fall could cause a deadly spleen rupture, and her immune system was depleted.

Then a donor materialized. Her sister, Miwa, on the verge of turning 18, volunteered. At first, their mother, Kazumi, balked: The idea of both daughters undergoing surgery was terrifying. But, ultimately, it was Miwa’s decision, and she was a perfect match.

In December 2009, just two weeks after her 18th birthday, Miwa donated 40 percent of her liver to her sister, becoming the youngest live donor in the history of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco.  The livers would regenerate over time.

“If her older sister didn’t volunteer, Miya might not be here,” Kazumi says. “We are forever grateful.”

After surgery, the recovering 5-year-old took up swimming. Miya showed such promise that she was soon recruited to join the competitive Marin Pirates team.

“Miya is one of the hardest working swimmers that I have met,” says her coach, Tom Evers. “The obstacles that she has to navigate make her an incredible inspiration.”

Indeed, Miya still faces health challenges. She’s needed two hernia repairs and suffered bouts of liver rejection. Regular blood draws, typically every week or two, monitor her liver function.

“We weren’t even sure she could go to Spain until two days before we left,” Kazumi says. But Miya’s medical team knew that canceling the trip would devastate her.

“It’s amazing how the doctors at UCSF don’t just think about Miya’s physical needs,” Kazumi says. “They really come together as a team to think about her as a whole and allow her to do what she loves.”

Miya says she hopes to compete in the next World Transplant Games and get a scholarship to swim at college.

“Swimming gives me time when I don’t need to worry about anything else,” she says. “When I’m in the water, the only person I’m racing against is myself.”