Where it all began…
Jaelin Highsmith, a 21-year-old college student from Meriden, CT, thought he was just going out for a regular game of pick-up soccer. But what he learned at the game would define the next six months of his life.
“My buddy Cameron told us a story about this girl who was going through a lot of medical issues, and her family was looking for someone to step up and be a living donor. Instantly, I felt compelled to do something.”
Madison Ricci was diagnosed with Lupus at the age of 12. Now 18, Maddie was in need of a living donor to replace her liver, which had been severely damaged by her disease. Her parents had made a public appeal in April 2018, hoping that someone would come forward.
Despite the outpouring of support and multiple volunteers, a successful donor hadn’t been found. Liver transplants are a complex procedure, and there is long and arduous testing process that must be undergone before a donor can be approved. A volunteer only has about a 5-10% chance of ultimately being approved for transplant surgery; all of the previous volunteers for Maddie had not passed initial screenings. Jaelin originally contacted Yale New Haven Hospital about being a donor in June but didn’t find out he had been approved until the end of October. Throughout the long process, however, he never faltered.
“I was completely separated from the emotion the entire time. This process is very long, you have to talk to surgeons and psychiatrists... but none of those things phased me because I knew it was the right thing to do, and nothing anyone could tell me was going to stop me.”
Maddie’s family didn’t know that there was a potential donor going through the approval process; they were only made aware they had an anonymous donor once Jaelin had been approved, briefly before the surgery actually took place. While Jaelin could follow Maddie’s progress on the Miracle for Maddie Facebook page, he never met or spoke with her before the transplant.
Maddie’s liver transplant gives her another chance at life. A living liver donation consists of removing a portion of a liver from a healthy donor and transplanting it to a recipient in need. Healthy livers immediately begin to regenerate in both the donor and the recipient, taking about six to eight weeks to grow back to full size. Jaelin spent four nights in the hospital post-surgery, and Maddie spent thirteen, multiple of which were in the ICU. Maddie was readmitted to the hospital about a week after being discharged due to some additional complications, and Jaelin had his own share of bumps in the road, but thankfully both are now back home and recovering well.
Completing the surgery meant that Jaelin and Maddie finally had the opportunity to communicate. When Jaelin first got Maddie’s number, he wasn’t sure what to say.
“That moment when I got her number, there wasn’t anything on my mind specifically that I felt I needed to say. But I started typing out a message, and it ended up a lot longer than I anticipated. It was raw emotion; I just told her everything I’d been feeling throughout the process. I was just telling her how grateful I was for the opportunity how happy I was that I could help her and her family.”
Maddie has posted on social media about how amazing Jaelin’s generosity and commitment meant to her despite never having met in person.
When asked about where he found the inspiration to step forward in such a meaningful way, Jaelin looks back to the community that surrounded him growing up:
“There are a lot of people in my life—too many to name, in my church and my community—who always offered help to me. From that, I learned that whenever I could help somebody, I was always able to do so. This girl needed help, and if I’m able to do it, I’m going to do it.”
Jaelin is always quick to say that despite the long process he went through, Maddie was his real inspiration for strength and courage:
“I know I’m going through this process too, but Madison is the one who’s been suffering the last seven years. This is about Maddie getting another chance at life. I was just very grateful to everyone around me for keeping that in mind and being so supportive of Maddie and her family.”
How we got to help
Unfortunately, even with insurance, the financial realities of long-term illnesses and transplant surgeries can be extremely taxing. By April of 2018, Maddie had already exceeded the maximum of her prescription benefit for the year, leaving the Riccis to pay for the rest out of pocket. Her parents will additionally have to take some time off of work to help Maddie during recovery.
Cameron, the friend who originally told Jaelin about Maddie, created a campaign on Givebutter to help Maddie’s family cover her medical fees. As of this writing, they’ve raised over $5,000 from 130 people. Jaelin has actively been supporting the campaign and encouraging others to donate to Maddie’s family. When asked why he wants to continue the giving and raise donations to help with medical costs, Jaelin said, “We took the biggest stride in actually getting through the surgery successfully, but it doesn’t stop there. As long as more can be done, I’ll be willing to help get it done.”
We asked Jaelin about his experience on Givebutter, and he said the best part is working directly with our team and the new Venmo integration:
“The fact that you all are willing and able to reach out us, and that it’s possible for me to speak on the phone with someone, is absolutely amazing. Even Max (the CEO) reaching out and talking to Cam says a lot about the goal in mind and the vision. The coolest thing is the fact that Venmo is an option, it makes it a lot easier for people my age to have an easier way to give.”
Though they’ve exchanged a number of texts—and their moms text each other every day!—Jaelin and Maddie have yet to meet in person. Once they have both recovered from the procedure, Jaelin hopes he’ll be able to meet the young woman who inspired him so much throughout the process.
As for Maddie, she’ll take this next semester off from the University of Tampa, where she studies Pre Med Biology, to rest and recover with her family. Then she plans to return to school and further pursue her goal of becoming a physician assistant.
As Jaelin continues to support Maddie and her family, he is also focused on finishing his undergraduate studies and applying to law school. While in school, he also serves as a member of the Air Force National Guard, which helps him pay for school and gives him another avenue through which to give back to his community.
What’s Jaelin’s advice for anyone looking to make a difference?
“Step outside of your comfort zone and know that nothing is too big or too small. I don’t want people to be discouraged by my story and think that if they don’t give a liver, it’s not enough. Nothing is too small. The little things that matter give you the confidence to eventually do the big thing. So start small.”