Overcoming disease, Merrick teen inspires

Organ transplant survivor recognized for tenacity, volunteerism


Gillian Cohen was just 7 years old when she received a life-saving liver transplant, but she has never forgotten it.

Now a junior at Calhoun High School, Gillian spends much of her time working to help ensure that others in need of organ transplants get the same second chance at life that she did. The list of public venues in which she has spoken about the importance of organ donation has grown.

“She’s spoken at North Shore LIJ Hospital, she’s spoken at Winthrop Hospital, she’s spoken at Temple Beth Am, she’s spoken at Calhoun High School, she’s spoken at assisted living facilities … she’s spoken for New York Organ Donor Network,” her mother, Pam, said. She also recalled “organ donation speeches” her daughter gave at Yale University, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in a TV interview and at annual ceremonies the Transplant Recipient International Organization holds for organ donor families in Eisenhower Park.

Gillian is especially fond of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which sent her and her family on a Disney cruise when she was 4. Today Gillian is a “Wish Ambassador,” promoting the organization’s mission at fundraisers, like this month’s Long Beach Polar Bear Super Bowl Splash, and logging hours as a volunteer in its Lake Success office.

“I’ve just been friends with them ever since” the Disney cruise, she said. “They’re like a big family.”

Gillian was born with biliary atresia, a rare liver disease that affects one out of every 18,000 infants, according to the National Institutes of Health. Hepatic ducts do not properly form in infants born with the disease. As a result, bile builds up in the liver, causing jaundice, tissue damage and cirrhosis. In short, Gillian needed a new liver. In 2005, when she was 7, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in her liver, and they upgraded her to the highest-urgency status on a transplant waiting list. About two weeks later, Gillian underwent a 10-hour operation at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, in which she received the liver of a small 26-year-old car-accident victim.

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