Story by Chris Togneri
PITTSBURGH —Lisa Mazza broke into tears when doctors wheeled her from her ailing sister.
But it wasn't until she entered the operating room that her unease turned to terror.
"You see all these instruments and tools, clamps and everything, all sanitized and lined up on that blue sheet," she said. "There were so many of them. And the breathing instruments, and all the different people in there. ... It was very intimidating. It was dawning on me at that moment that I was getting ready to actually do this."
UPMC Montefiore surgeons were about to open her abdomen, slice off 50 percent to 60 percent of her liver and transplant it into her sister, Christina, who six months before learned she has hereditary amyloidosis.
"I started to hyperventilate," Mazza said. "I was afraid of not making it out. There are so many risks involved in that surgery. It was the whole not knowing -- what's going to go on in there, what's the future going to hold?"
Still, she never had second thoughts. As she drifted into unconsciousness, Mazza, 30, of Beechview thought about their mother, who died of amyloidosis when Lisa was 7. She thought about Christina Mazza, 31, who has a 7-year-old son.
"I thought about Christmas time and holidays. I knew that this was what I had to do, to make sure my sister is around for those times."
She made the decision less than six months ago.
On July 29, Christina Mazza was in her South Park condominium recovering from surgery to remove thyroid cancer when her doctor called. She needed a liver transplant within a year, the doctor told her, to give her excellent odds of leading a normal life.
Amyloidosis generally affects the heart or nervous system and is caused by amyloid proteins that build up in organs, often leading to failure. Though relatively obscure, the disease killed Pittsburgh Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri in 1988, Erie Mayor Louis Tullio in 1990, and Gov. Robert P. Casey in 2000.
It took Phyllis Rigos-Mazza in 1986. Christina, a critical care nurse at UPMC Montefiore, knew that children of victims have a 50 percent chance of carrying the mutated gene responsible for the disease. Tests cleared her two sisters.
Christina could wait for a deceased donor's liver, which likely would allow the disease to cause irreversible damage, or seek a live donor.
"I didn't have much time," Christina said. "I told Lisa the options. And she said, 'Absolutely.' "
The Mazza sisters pulled into Montefiore's parking lot in Oakland at 4:30 a.m. Jan. 15. Christina hugged herself in the cold morning air; Lisa cradled a book of daily devotionals, "Promises and Prayers; A Woman of Prayer."
Surrounding them were their closest supporters: Eddie Waterman, Christina's fiance; Justin Christ, Lisa's boyfriend who three nights before tied a diamond ring around the collar of Lisa's 2-year-old bluetick coonhound, Savannah, and waited two hours for Lisa to notice before he proposed; and Rita Christ, Justin's mom.
They huddled, talking quietly, holding hands and admiring Lisa's engagement ring.
"You guys ready?" Christina said.
"Let's get this done and over with," Lisa said.