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'I’m keeping my sister alive and she’s keeping me alive'

SEATTLE – Paul Hamilton doesn’t know how to feel this Christmas season.

A month ago, Hamilton, 47, was standing in the Apple store when his brother, Dave, called: “Lona’s in the hospital.”

Lona was their sister, Danielle Renee Hamilton. She had a suffered a grand mal seizure and had been taken to Highline Medical Center in Burien, Wash..

Paul Hamilton is the sixth of 12 children who grew up on Beacon Hill and are now scattered all over: Las Vegas. Los Angeles. Bangor, Maine.

They all came to Seattle and held a vigil in Danielle’s hospital room for a few days, and then everyone said their final, painful goodbyes and left. It would be up to Hamilton; his wife, Atelia; and his brother, Dave, to decide how to proceed.

Doctors told them that Lona had no brain activity.

“The conversation switched from whether to pull the plug, to the funeral,” Hamilton said. “I went home to mourn by myself.”

Hamilton was used to sitting in, and coming home from, hospitals. He was diagnosed with hepatitis C-related liver failure in 2013 — the result of a blood transfusion he had after a scooter accident in 1986. He had been on a transplant list for two years.

“I was constantly miserable,” Hamilton said of his condition. “I was going downhill fast, and my levels were to the point where it was about to be an emergency.

“It was close.”

After leaving his sister’s hospital room for the last time, Hamilton dropped his wife off at the Queen Anne hardware store where she works and drove home. He was sitting in front of his house when his phone rang. It was the coordinator from the University of Washington liver clinic: “We have a donor for you.”

He went to the University of Washington Medical Center and admitted himself.

He couldn’t completely comprehend what was happening. He was still in shock that Lona was gone.

“Tell me more about the donor,” he asked one of the coordinators.

“It’s your sister,” she said.

Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that his sister might one day save his life.

There were other wonders at work that day.

His procedure was the first in the Pacific Northwest in which a donor organ was transported not on ice, but with a warm blood-perfusion device casually referred to as a “liver in a box.” UW Medicine’s transplant program is one of seven in the country chosen to use the device in a clinical trial.

The new device seemed to make a difference in Hamilton’s recovery — and almost immediately.

He woke up the morning after his surgery to find that his yellow-tinged skin — even the skin under his fingernails — had turned a healthy pink.

Within three hours of his surgery, Hamilton was eating ice. Eight hours later, he was sitting up, eating Jell-O and giving doctors a thumbs-up. After 14 hours, he was eating a turkey sandwich. Then he was walking. Practicing tai chi.

In the first week after his procedure, he was logging three miles a day (one mile in the morning, at noon and at night) by walking the hospital halls.

“It was all up in the air,” Hamilton said of his pre-surgery health. “No one knew if it was going to match. And I had a negative outlook. I had been through so much.”

That’s forgotten now.

“Ever since I got my new liver, I have the energy of a 20-year-old,” he said.

And yet, some thoughts linger. Guilt, mostly.

“I knew that somebody had to die in order for me to live,” he said.

The transplant-team members told him that survivor’s guilt is common.

“Why me?” he asked. “Why did I have to survive?”

He is trying hard to see things differently.

“I’m keeping my sister alive and she’s keeping me alive,” Hamilton said. “I think she would be really happy for the simple fact that she was a giver.”

She once — literally — gave him the shirt off her back, he said, “and went home in a bra and a jacket.

“She would be, ‘You better take my liver!’” he said. “And right after I received the liver, it wasn’t a ghost, but I heard her voice and she was yelling at me. ‘Get up! Get to work! Get moving!’

“And I was like, ‘OK, here we go.’”

The transplant has changed him. He wants to go back to work full time as a real-estate broker, maybe even create websites on the side.

He wants to encourage people to become organ donors — and to encourage those waiting for transplants to follow doctor’s orders so that they can be ready when their lucky day comes.

“The world has opened up,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t have the energy to lift my arms sometimes and now I’m feeling stronger and stronger every day.

“Me and my sister are one now,” he said. “We are one.”