Conquering New Heights: A Father and Son Celebrate a 20-Year Transplant Anniversary

When Ethan Glaser needed a liver transplant as a toddler, his father, Chad, stepped up to become his living donor. Twenty years later Ethan is thriving, and they marked the anniversary of the donation with a trip to remember.

Chad Glaser, who donated a portion of his liver to his son, Ethan Glaser, when he needed a liver transplant.
Chad Glaser, who donated a portion of his liver to his son, Ethan Glaser, when he needed a liver transplant.

On a trip in March 2023, Chad and Ethan Glaser soaked in the breathtaking views, marveling at the majestic, snow-capped peaks of the French Alps before gliding side by side down the powdered slopes. As Chad soared down the alpine landscape in Chamonix, France, glancing at his 22-year-old son, Ethan, he felt immense gratitude.

It was exactly this kind of moment that Chad hoped he and Ethan could share when he donated a portion of his liver to Ethan, who at three months old was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a rare liver disease of the bile ducts that affects newborn infants. This trip to Chamonix marked the 20th anniversary of the liver donation.

Says Chad of the diagnosis years ago: “When I was trying to process everything, I remember saying to my wife, ‘All I’ve wanted is to have a buddy to share my love of skiing with.’ I dreamed of the day where we could get him to the point where we’d do it together.”

A ‘World Turned Upside Down’

Shortly after he was born in June 2001, Ethan started showing signs of jaundice. When the yellowing of his skin and eyes persisted for three months, the Glasers, who lived in Buffalo, New York, sought care at a local hospital, where a series of tests revealed that Ethan had biliary atresia.

The condition — in which a portion of the bile duct is damaged or missing — causes bile, a fluid that is essential for liver function and digestion, to accumulate in the organ.

While there are no medications for biliary atresia, there are two surgical interventions: the Kasai procedure and transplantation.

“My world was turned upside down,” Chad says. “We were told there was only one surgery at that time, the Kasai procedure, and we wanted to find the best place to do it.”

Through phone calls and research, the family found the late Dr. Peter Altman, pediatric liver surgeon and then chief of Pediatric Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Altman, a leader in the surgical management of biliary atresia, helped bring the procedure from Japan to the United States. The operation, though not a cure, can slow liver damage and delay or prevent the need for a transplant by removing damaged bile ducts outside the liver and replacing them with a loop of the infant’s own small intestine.

“I felt it was the utmost importance to have transparency in my son’s care, and to be surrounded by people who were knowledgeable, trustworthy, and had the experience. I was sold,” Chad says. “This was where we needed to be.”

The Glasers traveled to New York City, where Dr. Altman performed the Kasai procedure on Ethan on Sept. 9, 2001.

“I felt it was the utmost importance to have transparency in my son’s care, and to be surrounded by people who were knowledgeable, trustworthy, and had the experience. This was where we needed to be.”

— Chad Glaser

A Father’s Life-Saving Gift

While the procedure reestablished bile flow from Ethan’s liver to his small intestine, it was a difficult two years post-surgery for Ethan, Chad recalls, with many emergency trips back and forth from Buffalo for additional procedures, including a surgical revision.

When Ethan was nearly 2 years old, it was clear that he needed a transplant, and his care team presented the option of a living donor.

Chad and his wife, Debra, underwent testing to see if they could donate to their son. Chad was a perfect match.

“I knew that Dr. Jean Emond was on Ethan’s medical team, and to know that he was a part of the first living donor liver transplant in the United States, there was no question whether we’d do it,” Chad says.

Dr. Jean Emond, chief of the transplantation services at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Dr. Jean Emond

On June 6, 2003, Chad donated 20% of his liver to Ethan.

Dr. Emond, chief of the transplantation services at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, removed Ethan’s diseased liver, implanting a portion of his father’s organ in its place.

Since the liver regenerates, both Chad and Ethan’s livers regrew the lost tissue post-donation.

“I was 100% committed,” Chad says of his decision. “He’s my first-born and I just wanted to have him have as normal a life as possible. If I could give it to him, I was going to do it.”

Recovery, Resilience, and Renewal

The transplant gave Ethan a second chance at life, an opportunity to build his future, and lasting memories with his family.

As an active child, he became an avid skier and snowboarder, and ran track in high school. He discovered a passion for technology and computers, teaching himself how to code.

While he required another surgery in 2004 to treat liver scar tissue and underwent a bile duct reconstruction years later, he has led a normal life, he says.

“I didn’t think too much about it, or that I was different in any sort of way aside from my scar,” Ethan, now 22, says. “My experience has motivated me and is a driving factor if I’m ever in a time of struggle.”

Anti-rejection medications have become part of his daily life, and he has returned annually to NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital for checkups, and every five years for liver biopsies as a routine part of his care as a transplant recipient.

“One of the keys to success in pediatric transplants, and especially in Ethan’s case, has been the strong relationships that our team maintains with the families to help them through whatever comes along,” says Dr. Emond, who is also the Thomas S. Zimmer Professor of Reconstructive Surgery in Pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Steven J. Lobritto, chief of the Division of Pediatric Transplant Hepatology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Dr, Steven J. Lobritto

Ethan’s pediatric medical care was directed by Dr. Steven Lobritto, chief of the Division of Pediatric Transplant Hepatology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“I can’t wait to see what Ethan will achieve in his lifetime. Seeing him reach these milestones is like seeing it for my own kids,” Dr. Lobritto says.

“The fact that we helped extend his life and that he’s running with it, seeing that is my reward.  He has a lot ahead of him.”

Now a recent college graduate, Ethan is starting a career in cybersecurity, and though he’s making a move to North Carolina, he will still coordinate his care with the adult transplant team at NewYork-Presbyterian.

“We put a lot of effort and emphasis into preparing our patients through the combined effort between the adult and pediatric programs, so there is a seamless transition of comprehensive care,” Dr. Lobritto adds.

“As crazy as it sounds, NewYork-Presbyterian is my favorite place to go,” Chad says of his visits with Ethan. “No one wants to spend a day at a children’s hospital, but I feel like it’s an amazing place.”

A Trip of a Lifetime

Not only did the transplant help save Ethan’s life, it also gave him a chance to share his dad’s love of skiing.

Ethan began skiing at the age of 4, and yearly father-and-son ski trips quickly became a tradition for the Glasers.

“My dad and I have more than the typical father-and-son relationship, because I’m always carrying a piece of him inside me,” Ethan says. “And with skiing, it’s a fun hobby we’ve always enjoyed together.”

In 2023, with the duo celebrating Chad’s 50th birthday and Ethan’s graduation, Chad started planning for their big trip. Since they were also honoring of the 20-year anniversary of their liver transplant, Chad surprised his son with the location: the site of the first winter Olympics.

“To be able to do a bucket list trip like that, there is nobody else that I would want to go with besides Ethan,” Chad says. “Looking back on everything, it was a reminder to take advantage of the time together. It was incredibly special for us.”

“I’m thankful to just be here today, and hope to further my life even more,” Ethan says. “Twenty years may seem like a long time to some, but I’m only 22 years young. I look forward to having more anniversaries with my dad.”

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