First kill: Cal’s Savannah Rennie all the way back after liver transplant

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Update, October 8, 2016: Four months and three days after this story ran, Savannah Rennie got her first kill Friday night as a Cal Bear. It’s been quite a journey.

Rich Feller and Savannah Rennie
Rich Feller and Savannah Rennie

Savannah, still living in Indianapolis after her transplant, visited with Cal coach Rich Feller while he was recruiting at USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championships on June 27.

***

One year ago, on June 4, 2015, Savannah Rennie had a great day.

She ran three miles on the beach near her Torrey Pines, Calif., home, and then lifted weights.

Then that night she did what she loves most, play a couple of hours of volleyball.

And then her life took a turn no one could have imagined. Suddenly, this 6-foot-2 freshman outside hitter at Cal, who, in her own estimation, hadn’t even had a cold in three years, began a battle for her life that led, ultimately, to her getting a new liver less than three weeks ago.

It’s been a hell of a year.

***

Most important is that Savannah is doing great, living in an Indianapolis apartment with her mother, Renee, recovering from her liver transplant faster than anyone could have imagined, with an eye toward getting back to Cal for the fall semester and playing volleyball again sooner than later.

As she waited for the transplant and then got a new liver on May 17, Savannah’s story was popular on social media and was reported by national news outlets. The outpouring of well wishes from inside the volleyball world and out was at times overwhelming.

“It really keeps me going,” Savannah said. “It has me wanting to get back and give back to everyone who has supported me and show that you can keep your dreams alive.”

Not that it’s been easy.

Last Saturday, for example, she went back into the hospital for three days to deal with a variety of issues. The liver’s fine, but there are plenty of other complications to deal with.

“I feel good now. I have good days and bad days,” Savannah said. “I have good hours and bad hours. There will be mild pain, no pain at all and then I’ll have pain and lay in bed for hours and just close my eyes.

“I feel good for being only 16 days out,” she said Friday, “and at the clinic everyone is pretty surprised at how well I’m doing. I’m on a quick recovery compared to others and it’s nice to know that.”

She realizes that being such a well-conditioned athlete no doubt aided in recovery.

“I’m definitely a different unique bird out here because I was in such good shape going into it,” she said. “At clinic I can tell where some people are really struggling and I’m 16 days out and doing really well.”

Well enough to say simply, “I’m going to be back playing volleyball.”

***

Savannah was a prep All-American, in the U.S. Girls’ Youth National Volleyball Team program, and the 2014 San Diego Section Player of the Year. And she probably would have cracked the Cal starting lineup last fall.

She graduated from high school early so she could start a semester early at Cal in January 2015. Spring practice in Berkeley instead of the senior prom.

“I have no regrets about it. Best decision ever. I was ready to challenge myself instead of waiting back in high school. Your spring semester really means nothing and it would have been kind of a waste of time and I’m not the kind of person to waste time. It wouldn’t have been fun for me. I was really ready to start a new chapter and start training. That was a sacrifice I was willing to make.”

She took four classes that first semester and jumped right in with the Bears.

“At Cal you’re surrounded by like geniuses,” Savannah said with a laugh. “You’ve got to hold your ground and make that (academic) transition.”

The transition on the court obviously went well, Her Cal coach, Rich Feller, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “After two weeks of training, we had Savannah penciled in as a starter. She was dynamic, aggressive and super competitive.”

After the semester, she went back to Torrey Pines. She recalled that last June 4 “was a completely normal day. I did what I did every day.”

After the run, lifting and volleyball, she went home, but “about two hours later, I felt sick. I get a major headache and starting running a fever of about 104. I thought it was the flu.”

She laughed.

“Yeah, that’s what happened on June 4th.”

It wasn’t the flu, of course. It was Congenital Hepatic Fibrosis with Portal Hypertension. But it would be a while before that was diagnosed.

The Rennies said the doctors suspected her liver early on, especially when her organs became enlarged. That put her in the hospital the first time and Savannah recalls every test imaginable, from looking for cancer to liver disease. All that seemed to work were antibiotics, but that was temporary.

“I hadn’t been sick in years,” Savannah said. “Not even as a freshman in college when everyone gets sick. I couldn’t even remember the last time I was sick.”

She laughed.

“I don’t get the common cold but I get a genetic disease we didn’t know about. That’s what I get.”

Suddenly her plans to return to Berkeley last July and, of course, become a big-time college volleyball player were put on hold. “I thought it was like the flu and I’d be fine. But it kept spiraling. I was always really positive about it, but, yeah, I was scared.”

***

If you Google “Congenital Hepatic Fibrosis with Portal Hypertension,” it brings up more than 220,000 references. A first biopsy didn’t show it, but because her liver wasn’t draining properly doctors put in a stint.

“Things were going better with the stint, so you knew it was the liver and something was wrong with the bile,” Savannah recalled.

Savannah did go back to Berkeley for the fall semester, taking a normal class load, but could only be a small part of the volleyball team on the court, practicing on a limited basis. Her liver and spleen were enlarged.

“I did everything a teammate should do when they’re not able to play,” Savannah said. “I was able to serve and stuff like that but I couldn’t play all out. It was awful.”

That wasn’t lost on her Cal teammates.

“We would go in the locker room and see her sitting there with all those lines going into her and she was her normal self,” said Maddie Haynes, a freshman from Rocklin, Calif., who in their short time together had become Savannah’s best friend. “We didn’t talk about it much but personally I couldn’t believe this 19-year-old girl was in college by herself doing all this stuff and knowing she needs a liver.

“It was amazing to watch her be so positive and stoic and everything. It didn’t seem to bother her that much. I was amazed to see her attitude through it all.”

In the meantime, doctors were still trying to figure out what was wrong. In mid-September, “They did another big liver biopsy, a core biopsy, and they took a massive portion of my liver. And they called me back — I was in a volleyball practice — and it showed Congenital Hepatic Fibrosis with Portal Hypertension.”

When she went back to Torrey Pines for Christmas break, that was the first time they discussed a liver transplant.

Just after her 19th birthday last December, Renee told Savannah, “That’s the only way we can fix you.”

Five months later it’s still hard to talk about.

“It took me a while to accept it,” Savannah said. “How long is recovery? How long will I be away?”

***

They moved in March to be at the Indiana University Health Transplant medical center.

“Waiting to get the diagnosis, that was pretty brutal, the waiting,” Renee Giroux-Rennie said.

But once they learned what it was, she figured they would just manage with medication.

“But when they decided she was going to need the transplant, kind of a weird switch went off in me,” Renee admitted. “Down to business, get things done, get things in order.

Renee and Savannah in Indianapolis before the transplant
Renee and Savannah in Indianapolis before the transplant

“I’m thankful every day I was a certified medical assistant for 12 years. I have a lot of medical information in my head just from taking care of patients and working with doctors. It gave me an edge on many care givers who have family members with situations like this.

“So I kind of went into my medical-assistant mode first and mom mode second and got everything in order.”

They moved to Indianapolis, a place the Rennies lived from 1991-95, where Savannah’s older brother Luc, a professional baseball player, was born, and, as it turned out, a place where the odds of getting a liver were way better than California.

“In Indiana the wait might be a month to two months, which is how long I was here,” Savannah said. “In California it might have been two to three years. So, no.”

So, yes to the move.

They have some old friends there and Luc, as it turns out, is playing this season in nearby Evansville, Ind.

Renee and Savannah set up shop in Indianapolis and had to hurry up and wait. Cell phones always on, ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice to prep for surgery. In the meantime, Savannah worked out as hard as she could each day, but was getting pretty bored.

“You run out of things to do and things to see,” she admitted.

Maddie and Savannah at the baseball game when the call came
Maddie and Savannah at the baseball game when the call came

The weekend of May 14-15 they drove up to Chicago to see the Cal baseball team play at Northwestern. Two exciting things happened that weekend for Savannah. The first was Maddie Haynes made a surprise visit, shocking Savannah at the Northwestern ballpark.

The other?

Renee getting the call.

THE CALL.

“We were going to breakfast that Monday morning and her mom came in and told us to gather our things and we needed to drive back to Indianapolis,” Maddie Haynes recalled. “Her mom said, ‘We just got the call.’ We were in shock.”

“A liver was coming,” Savannah said. “I looked at Maddie and she looked at me and I was like, whoa. We’d been waiting so long.”

One can only imagine making the roughly 190-mile drive from Chicago back to Indy knowing what was ahead.

She was admitted to the hospital that night, but nothing happened as Renee, Savannah’s father Bill, and Maddie Haynes, all waited it out from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Finally the doctors came to get her.

“They told us to say our goodbyes and that was very surreal,” Renee recalled. “We were like hugging and kissing and they said they would let us know when the surgery started. We were expecting a four- to six-hour surgery. We went to a family waiting area. Bill fell asleep and I fell asleep and Maddie was up the whole time.”

The surgery started at 6.

“At 8 o’clock on the dot the surgeon came out. They were done.”

She was told they had to retract Savannah’s ribs to get out the old liver, it was so enlarged.

“The new liver went in easy,” a relieved mom said. “It was text book.”

What Savannah remembers is waking up thinking not about her liver but trying to get someone to take the uncomfortable breathing tube out.

It was, of course, only the beginning.

The next day, Savannah actually Tweeted “HELLO!I am doing well! Docs said everything went really well & that my liver was huge.I am so thankful for all your support, love you all”

The next day, two days after the first surgery, doctors performed a fascia closing.

“That was where they re-attached all my muscles in my abdomen, because they took everything apart. They had to go back in and re-attach all the muscles to my skin and it was the most painful part.”

Savannah on the way to PT after surgery
Savannah on the way to PT after surgery

And that day she started physical therapy.

Maddie, who extended her stay, was amazed: “Holy crap, dude, this girl just had a surgery eight hours ago!” Maddie posted a short video of Savannah riding an exercise bike.

And stories began to pop up and Tweets from around the volleyball world began to come in. Everyone who knew her and everyone who knew the story was thrilled for Savannah. Six days after the transplant she was out of the hospital and back in the apartment.

***

The harsh truth is someone had to die for Savannah to get her liver. And she doesn’t know who that was.

‘Sadly, no. They don’t let me know anything about where the liver came from. They have to protect the patient and the families. I wish they would let me know, because it’s a gift. And you don’t know anything.

“You can write a letter to the family but it’s super generic, like thank-you and stuff like that. They can reach out to you, but some families don’t. I don’t know who it’s from, I don’t know the age, the gender, Indiana’s pretty strict.”

That made her cry.

“I’m going to write the family and hopefully hear back from them. But you never know how a family reacts.

“But I hope it would be cool for them to know me.”

They would know a young woman who appreciates what she has.

“It’s totally life-changing,” Savannah said, fighting back tears.

“You see athletes out there sometimes complaining about their lives and I’m thinking you have no idea what you have. It really makes you accept and appreciate your athletic gift and use it to your best ability. Because once you have it taken away it’s no fun.”

On Friday morning Savannah herself Tweeted, “I’ll be back soon bears, I owe it to everyone who has supported me through this I won’t let you down”

Let anyone down?

“I don’t want to fail when I get back,” Savannah said, fighting back tears.

That’s hard to imagine, because just getting back will be a big reward for anyone who knows her or who has followed her story.

“I’m hoping to be back at Cal for fall semester. That’s my major goal. And then hopefully start training then, too. They want me to take it slow because as of tomorrow it will be a year since I played no-restrictions volleyball.

“That’s a long time, so they’re obviously not going to want to me to injure anything else not liver related and want me to get my strength back. Make sure my knees are OK and my arm’s not gonna fall off. Just got to build up the strength to play volleyball. Volleyball is a really demanding sport.”

Savannah a few days after surgery
Savannah a few days after surgery

And Savannah Rennie can’t wait to be sore from playing volleyball again.

“I don’t know about anybody else, but before I got sick there was not a day I wasn’t sore,” she said with a laugh.

Renee Giroux-Rennie said her doctors understand what kind of athlete her daughter is.

“She will play volleyball again,” Renee said.

“Every doctor here. Every doctor and every nurse here says to her, we’re going to get you on the court again. They know. They know what the goal was going in and they have stayed true to that.”

***

Finally, there’s rejection, a fact of transplant life.

“There are different stages of rejection,.” Savannah said. “There’s 24-hour rejection, so obviously I’m past that one. Then there’s acute and there are so many with different names. You have to keep an eye out because it can happen any time because your body’s still getting used to the anti-rejection meds and all the meds they have you on in general.

“Like I’m on one anti-rejection med where you have to monitor your levels every day. And they change it every week.”

And then she sounded so happy.

“Right now, according to my clinic that I had yesterday, my numbers look phenomenal and the doctors are super happy about it.

“This liver apparently likes me right now and that’s awesome.”

Awesome, indeed.

Renee Giroux-Rennie has a blog that doubles as a fundraiser for the family’s enormous medical expenses. You can read her reports and donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/savstrongliver
Thanks to Renee Giroux-Rennie and Maddie Haynes for the photos
Savannah and Lee got to meet at USA Volleyball in Indianapolis on June 26.
Savannah and Lee got to meet at USA Volleyball GJNC in Indianapolis on June 26.

 

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