Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus


When my sister Virginia went to the Arizona Mayo Clinic Transplant Center in early November 2009, it was supposed to be for a week of screening tests. The idea was to get placed on the center’s liver transplant list, then go home to Tucson to wait for her surgery.

But life takes its own twists in the road.

My sister’s severe cirrhosis of the liver took a major turn for the worse while she and her husband David were in Phoenix. She was admitted to the Mayo Clinic Hospital’s Critical Care Unit. I feel certain that if she had been anywhere else, Ginny would not be alive today. (As an adult she uses the name Virginia, but to me she will always be Ginny.)

My hat is off to so many: the Mayo Clinic Hospital team who saved my sister’s life, especially David C. Mulligan, M.D.; Ginny’s husband David, who took loving care of her during many months of illness; and our youngest sister Liz, who selflessly traveled to Arizona and stepped up as Ginny’s primary caregiver for more than a month following the surgery.

I will always feel indebted to Dr. Mulligan, not only because of his skill as a liver transplant surgeon and his willingness to operate on my sister despite complications and her appallingly high mortality risk (MELD score). I am also grateful to him for his warm, confidence-inducing manner. When the transplant team told Ginny that her surgery would be very high risk due to an earlier, botched procedure (performed at a different hospital), she wept. She told me that Dr. Mulligan simply smiled at her and said, “I like a challenge.” We affectionately call him “Doctor Likes-a-Challenge.”

He is our hero. He probably realizes how profound such a moment is for a gravely ill patient. What’s more, his reassuring, compassionate words that day echoed and rippled through our large, anxiety-ridden family via telephone.

Those words of Dr. Mulligan’s inspired us.

We needed that.

For me, that inspiration meant finally accepting the fact that I might lose my beloved sister. At last I knew that she was in the very best hands and nothing more could be done. Even if Ginny died, everyone at the Arizona Mayo Clinic Hospital had done so much for her I would be thankful to them forever. Their teamwork is powerful. As perilously ill as she was, she sounded more peaceful and upbeat while in that hospital than she had for months.

Ginny spent her 53rd birthday there, praying for a liver. Our family and everyone in our lives prayed with her. Those birthday prayers were not answered, even though she was number one on the liver transplant list. Through weeks of facing one medical hurdle after another, Ginny never gave up. Maybe it was sheer stubbornness that helped her survive her liver and kidneys shutting down, her lungs filling with fluid, and one lung threatening to collapse. She was on and off the active liver transplant list due to a harrowing maze of complications.

On Thanksgiving Day, within hours of being re-activated on the transplant list, Ginny got the exciting news that there was a compatible liver available and her surgery would take place the next morning.

We were beside ourselves.

“They rarely do this surgery on a person with such a terribly high ‘MELD’ score,” Liz says. “I wonder who made the decision to go ahead with the transplant:  a committee? Dr. Mulligan? And why? Because they saw something special about Ginny? Or because Dr. Mulligan is, after all, Dr. Likes-a-Challenge?”

We will probably never get answers to these questions. That’s OK. We’re ecstatic with the miracle of Ginny’s life-giving transplant. As I write this, she is still healing beautifully and getting stronger. She is grateful beyond words for this chance to embark on a new chapter of her life.

Ginny was within two days of dying when she got her liver. One doctor from the Mayo team later told her that from day to day they never knew if she would still be alive. A nurse said that she had more inner strength than any patient she’d ever seen.

“What choice did I have?” Ginny says.

She is a real fighter whose positive attitude served her well.

My sister went home to Tucson on Christmas Day.

It brings to mind the famous 1897 New York Sun editorial by newsman Francis Pharcellus Church. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” he wrote. “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy…”

There is, indeed, a Santa Claus. He lives in the Mayo Clinic’s spirit of dedication and caring.


(Maggie’s note: this month marks the three-year anniversary of my sister’s liver transplant. We still cannot believe it!)

See the archive of all of Maggie Plummer’s Blogs.



Maggie Plummer is a writer and editor who lives in Polson with her black lab Peaches. She likes to write about anything and everything. In fact, Maggie has just published her first novel about an unusual topic – 1650s Irish slavery in the Caribbean. Entitled Spirited Away – A Novel of the Stolen Irish, the book is available on in trade paperback and Kindle editions. Find Maggie’s author page at: