Liver transplant toddler’s family make public appeal

Two-year-old Mark Okunola needs a liver transplant.

A Mowbray couple, Abisola and Anna Okunola, are trying to raise more than R670 000 to support their 2-year-old son, Mark, who needs a liver transplant.

Both Mr Okunola, 38, and Ms Okunola, 34, are post-doctoral researchers at Stellenbosch University Tygerberg campus in the division of molecular biology and human genetics. They are from Nigeria and have been in the country since 2015 and receive fellowships to work on their studies, which also cover their daily living expenses.

Mark has been in and out of Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital from the age of 10 weeks when he was diagnosed with biliary atresia, which is a non-genetic rare congenital condition characterised by blockage in the tubes that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder.

Mark’s parents first noticed that their son had dark urine and his tummy was a little bigger than normal a few days prior to his 10-week vaccination. They took him for tests at the children’s hospital which confirmed the disease.

In September 2019, Mark underwent a procedure at the children’s hospital to correct his congenital biliary atresia. But Ms Okunola says it failed and Mark now has chronic liver failure. “Now, with the progression of his chronic liver disease, Mark’s liver transplant will save his life,” she says.

Although Mark was born in South Africa, his parents do not have permanent residency so Mark does not qualify to be on the country’s liver-donor transplant list database. He does, however, qualify for a related living-donor liver transplant, which is presently done only at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, Johannesburg.

Provincial Department of Health spokesman Mark van der Heever says according to the national legislation, any person requiring an organ donation, will be prioritised according to their citizenship. “The patient in question is not a South African citizen, though, in support, we have approached Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre as they are the only centre in South Africa that performs living related liver transplantation.”

Ms Okunola will be donating part of her liver for the operation.

Mark’s liver transplant, scheduled for Thursday October 7, will cost an estimated R1,6 million. The family’s medical aid will cover all of Mark’s surgery and hospitalisation but not all of Ms Okunola’s, leaving a shortfall of R671 986.78, which the Okunolas are unable to afford.

“This operation for Mark is important; it will give him an opportunity to enjoy a good quality life,” Ms Okunola says.

So far, R146 000 has been raised on the family’s GoFundMe page. The public can also contribute to a BackaBuddy campaign at https://www.backabuddy.co.za/champion/project/mark-okunola