This Cape Town family has hope at last after granny’s liver is a match for sick little girl

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Carissa was diagnosed with a liver disease when she was a tiny baby. (Photo: SUPPLIED)
Carissa was diagnosed with a liver disease when she was a tiny baby. (Photo: SUPPLIED)

After nearly two years of desperation and worry, the Thomas family finally have something to celebrate: they’ve found an organ donor for their little girl – and it’s her grandmother, no less.

Carissa Thomas (22 months) from Bonteheuwel in Cape Town has the liver disease biliary atresia, and when a procedure to cure her failed when she was a tiny baby, her only option was to find a donor for a transplant.

And the family have just been given the exciting news: granny Pearl Johnston (47) has been deemed a suitable match and it’s hoped the life-saving surgery will go ahead around 12 May.

Thomas family, liver transplant
Parents Rushin and Cayle along with her sister Chay-gemma are over the moon that they’ve finally found an organ donor for little Carissa. (Photo: SUPPLIED)

The first sign that something was wrong came in 2019 when Carissa was three weeks old.

“She was sleeping, being her normal self, drinking her bottle. Suddenly my mother noticed something wasn’t right because her eyes seemed to stand dead still in her head,” says the baby’s mom, Cayle Thomas.

READ MORE | Brave 11-year-old gets second chance at life after undergoing life saving transplant

The family rushed Carissa to the day hospital where medical staff first thought the baby had sleep apnoea, a serious condition that causes breathing to stop during sleep.

Carissa was sent to Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, where she was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a rare condition that occurs in just one in 20 000 births.

“It was obviously devastating, not knowing what this disease was. How did she get it? My husband and I had many questions,” Cayle (25) says.

Staff at Red Cross picked up that Carissa had jaundice, a common condition that causes babies' skin to turn yellow. It tends to last longer when an infant has biliary atresia because the bile ducts are blocked.

Carissa underwent surgery to unblock her bile ducts but unfortunately the procedure didn’t work.

READ MORE | Husband and wife donate organs that save the same man's life – 16 years apart

The only solution was a transplant. Finding a donor would prove to be even harder as Carissa has O negative type blood, which is rare.

Doctors informed the family that waiting to receive a liver in Cape Town would take too long. Johannesburg was the best bet as there are more living donors.

Carissa and sister
Carissa with her older sister Chay-gemma, who she can’t wait to play with once she recovers from her transplant. (Photo: SUPPLIED)

Cayle and her husband, Rushin (25), who have an older daughter, Chay-gemma (4), decided to quit their jobs and dedicate their time to taking care of their ailing baby. Cayle was a fieldworker and Rushin worked as a cleaner.

Last year they made two trips to Joburg to seek treatment for Carissa. They both had tests to determine whether they could be a donor for their little girl. Cayle was ruled out but it was hoped Rushin would be a match.

The family went to Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Joburg but again there was nothing but disappointment: Rushin was not a suitable donor.

“I can’t even explain or put it in words how we felt in that moment,” Cayle says. “It’s like everything came crashing down.”

Then Pearl volunteered to be a donor and, after undergoing tests, she’s been given the green light. She’ll donate about 200g of her liver, which will grow back again.

There’s a long road ahead. The transplant, which will take up to 16 hours, has many risks. There’s a chance Carissa could reject part of the organ and Pearl is at risk of infection. But the family is confident that the operation will be successful and that Carissa will go on to live a happy and normal life.


Biliary atresia is a disease that blocks bile ducts from carrying digestive fluid to the small intestine. The disease affects only infants.


Yellow skin and sclera (white of the eyes)

Swollen abdomen

Gray and yellow stools Dark coloured urine

Frequent nosebleeds


One known treatment is to have surgery to repair the bile ducts. If the operation is unsuccessful, a liver transplant needs to be performed. 

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