“Ten years ago, at 2 years and 4 months old, he was believed be Fayette County’s youngest transplant recipient, when he received a new liver.
Now 12, Rishel is a sixth-grade student at A.J. McMullen School in the Uniontown Area School District who earns good marks and just finished his first year in wrestling and is beginning his sixth year in baseball.
“I feel happy and thankful,” he said of his transplant and the family who gave him a normal life.
But the youth’s early years were plagued with health problems. As a baby, he was placed on the transplant list after being diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which damaged his liver.
Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a protein produced in the liver that protects the lungs from an enzyme that, left unchecked, can attack healthy lung tissue. In sufficient amounts, Alpha-1 antitrypsin will destroy the enzyme before it can damage the tissue.
He also has paucity of the bile ducts of the liver, which means he has too few bile ducts for the nutrients to go through the fat.
The condition produced bumps on Wayne’s fingers, toe, knees and nose and in his joints from fat deposits. They were so pronounced on his feet that it bothered him if he stepped on a crumb. The bumps didn’t prevent his learning to walk, although he needed soft shoes and boots in a larger size.
Wayne was also jaundiced and had a terrible itching that prevented his sleeping at night and caused his face to be marked red from scratches. Doctors were finally able to control the itching somewhat through medication.
And although Wayne was on a high-fat diet, he had trouble gaining weight and spent most of the year before his transplant at 20 pounds.
A liver transplant was recommended, but Wayne’s age and size made it difficult for officials to find a suitable donor.
But a donor was found, and on April 17, 1995, the son of Christina Rishel of Uniontown and Daniel Rishel of Gibbon Glade received a new liver at Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital.
“The surgery was eight or nine hours. He went in at 9 and they were done by 5,” Daniel Rishel said. “I still have that first can of pop, Mountain Dew, I bought on my dresser.”
Wayne was tired and didn’t have much energy before the surgery. Three days after the transplant, he began walking. He came home a week after the surgery. His jaundice was clearing up, the bumps on his hands and feet were disappearing, and by Christmas, he was enjoying the riding tractor he received – his favorite gift.
These days, he visits a doctor once a year and has his blood tested every other month to check for signs of organ rejection, Christina Rishel said.
“He still makes faces when he gets pinched,” Daniel Rishel said.
Aside from disliking needles, Wayne doesn’t hold back from life. He enjoys time with his brother, Tim, 10, who is in the fifth grade at Wharton Township Elementary, and his sister, Robin, 6, who is in kindergarten at the school. Tim also wrestles, and Robin plays T-ball.
His parents say Wayne is a good student who enjoys sports and working around the house.
“He mows the grass with the riding lawnmower. Both of the boys bring firewood in and they go to the barn with their uncles. He shovels snow,” Daniel Rishel said. “He’s come a long way in 10 years.”
“He’s a different child,” Christina Rishel added.
Wayne said he wants to wrestle when he grows up.
“You better put some meat on those bones,” Daniel Rishel said in response.
“I’m working on it,” Wayne replied.
While the family is always aware of Wayne’s transplant, Christina Rishel noted that most of Wayne’s friends don’t even know about it.
Even his brother said, “I’m used to it.”
Four years after the transplant, Christina Rishel learned about her son’s donor: a 4-year-old girl named Leah.
“I received one letter from the mother. I wrote back at Christmastime and haven’t heard from her,” Christina said. “It was a car accident. The father and two children were killed. She had another child who survived. The liver came from a little girl named Leah. She was 4 and Wayne was 2.”
In commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Wayne’s transplant, Christina Rishel prepared an open letter called “Remembering the Gift.”
It recalls Wayne’s surgery: “On that same day, a little girl passed on, Leah, who is now a part of Wayne, and who saved his life!
“It has been 10 years since that day, and Wayne is doing wonderful! You would never know what he has gone through just by looking at him.
“I want to take this time to thank everyone who was there, had helped, and who prayed for him. I want to extend the thank you to the doctors and nurses. They are true life-savers. We will never forget! And as his life goes on, we will never forget the one that was lost. The same day we celebrate will be the same day we Remember the Gift.”
The entire family is thankful for the gift that allowed Wayne to recover and want to encourage organ donation.
“I think people should discuss this with their families if they want to donate, and you can get it on your driver’s license if you want to be a donor,” said Christina Rishel.
Daniel Rishel added, “Without the family that lost a loved one, Wayne might not be here.”
Editor’s note: This story is the second in a two-day series looking at organ donation, the people that organ transplants have saved and those still waiting for the right donor.Wayne Rishel is a success story.