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Little boy, big operation

Parents Mike and Tiffany (Hauser) Little of River Falls say they found it extremely hard to hand over their baby boy to surgeons when it was time for his liver transplant.

Tiffany delivered Hunter last May, giving the new parents great joy. By late last year, their elation was joined by serious concern.

Their son has a rare genetic condition called alpha one anti-trypsin deficiency that affects his liver function. Hunter's liver wasn't releasing some proteins it should, which would then build and threaten to damage the organ.

The parents learned that about 90% of children outgrow it, while the other 10% need a liver transplant.

Genetic tests run on Mike and Tiffany revealed them to be alpha-one carriers. For them that meant paying special attention to their own respiratory health; for Hunter it meant higher probability that he'd need a liver transplant.

Tiffany said after that, "Everything continued to get worse."

Worse before better

She and Mike said they never noticed any symptoms, only an ear infection and cold that kept returning. They realize now that his belly had been a bit distended but not noticeably so.

The two say Dr. Heather Tvedt-Davis at the River Falls Medical Clinic ordered extensive tests, saw high levels of a liver enzyme in Hunter's blood then sent them to Children's Hospital in St. Paul.

More tests revealed the alpha one, then it was on to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Doctors eventually sent the family home and told them to call if anything changed.

Hunter's caretakers called back within a few days and said, "He needs a transplant."

The Littles' small son was officially put on "the list" and began awaiting a liver.

Mike and Tiffany were told to be ready to report back to Mayo on short notice. Once the hospital got word a liver was en route, they'd only have a few hours to prepare.

"You have roughly six hours," said Mike.

Meanwhile, Hunter's health deteriorated. He had high ammonia levels and jaundice. As his conditioned worsened, his name climbed higher on the liver-transplant list.

The Littles got back to the hospital on Sunday. By Thursday, Hunter's name topped the list.

"They base it on labs," Tiffany said. "It was good and bad to be at the top of the list."

Mike was at the hospital alone when he found out a liver was on the way. He called Tiffany and told her to hurry.

She said they were bathing Hunter as they waited that afternoon, hearing a helicopter overhead. Nurses came to get him just a few minutes later.

Mike said, "It was very hard handing him over."

Their surgeon told them to expect about a 4-5 hour surgery. The Littles said the operation seemed to go smoothly and that doctors kept them well informed throughout it.

Hunter's parents could hardly wait to see him, even if he did have tubes attached all over.

Tiffany said even with all the equipment, "He had color...he looked so much better."

Mike recalls the shock of seeing a big scar going up and across his son's abdomen.

Finally, back home

The Littles spent more than two months going in and out of the hospital but finally arrived home in River Falls about 10 days ago with Hunter's surgery behind them. They said he was glad to see the family's Pomeranian puppy named Niko.

Tiffany took a six-month leave of absence from her work at the Mayo Clinic to stay home with Hunter after doctors said he shouldn't be in daycare for a while. It's important for the Littles to keep Hunter away from germs, because all his anti-rejection drugs suppress his immune system.

"He'll be on anti-rejection medicine the rest of his life," Mike said.

Tiffany said Hunter takes 14 different drugs now, but he should be down to one within about a year. His immune system should bounce back once he gets off of them.

Mike works at River Falls Heating and returned to work about two weeks ago. He has to be careful not to bring any dust into the house. The couple also installed a special filtration system plus keeps hand sanitizer always within reach.

They both appreciate their families' and employers' support throughout the ordeal.

Tiffany describes how Hunter is reaching, grabbing and putting his feet in his mouth, which he couldn't do before. She says he was a little behind in his development but is catching up now.

He can also sit up, lie on his stomach and breathe more easily without the pressure of fluid on his lungs.

"He's pretty much a totally different baby," she said. "I'd have to say the biggest difference is his smile."

His parents agree: Hunter's doing a lot more of that lately.