Liver transplant links Philly girl to Bobby Rydell

UBINAS25-c
Assiah Phinisee shares a liver with her pal Bobby Rydell.

THIS IS ABOUT Bobby Rydell and a little girl, and the liver that binds them. And a lesson we too often forget.

Let this be a small reminder.

Assiah Phinisee has her eyes fixed on her video game and her ears on the conversation I'm having with her mom - you know, in case the pint-size cutie needs to clarify an important point or two.

"I'm 7 1/2," she soon interjects, pausing for dramatic effect. "And I take my half really seriously."

Her mom, Rasheena, is sitting next to her and talking about the children's book she and Assiah have written, called I Am a Flower Pot Made for a Plant. It is a sweet, if slightly heartbreaking, story about Assiah's search for a new liver - two, actually.

Assiah had her first transplant in 2009. She had her second in 2012, a partial liver whose other lobe was transplanted to Rydell, the 1960s teen idol and fellow Philadelphian. Rydell underwent a double-organ transplant to replace his liver and a kidney at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Assiah underwent her transplant at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington. Rydell received 75 percent of the organ and Assiah got the remaining 25.

Nearly four years later, crooner and cutie are doing fine.

"I feel better than I usually did," Assiah says as her mom looks on. "I can run faster than all the boys in my class."

Music to Rydell's ears, who also reported that he was healthy and happy to hear his "liver sister," as Assiah's mom calls her, was thriving.

As difficult as the experience was for the rock 'n' roll legend, Rydell remembered tears coming to his eyes when he met Assiah.

"I had already lived a great deal," said the 73-year-old, ". . . but this little girl had her whole life ahead of her."

Assiah was 4 when they met. Before the meeting, her mom played her some of Rydell's music. Assiah liked it. She liked the bear that Rydell got her even more. Bobby the Bear never leaves her room.

And now the two not only share a liver, they also share literary accomplishments. Rydell has his own book coming out in April, an autobiography called A Teen Idol on the Rocks.

 

But when we talked this week, he was more interested in raving about Assiah's book.

"I just think it's tremendous. So many people have so many fears about being an organ donor . . . and here is this little girl telling her story and hopefully educating people about what a gift being an organ donor is. It's really a miracle."

Her mother asked Assiah if she'd like to write about her experience after her second transplant. She did, and they created the book, including naming a character after one of her favorite nurses, Patty.

The message Assiah wants to get across: "To teach children that they don't have to think they are going to die if they have a transplant, that they are going to live."

Her declaration seems to take her mom's breath away. "There you go," Rasheena Phinisee says, unable to keep from smiling.

Phinisee would like area schools to include the book in their curriculum. She's created puppets based on the characters and hopes to use them, and the book, to raise awareness about transplants.

She also plans to write a book for parents caring for sick children.

As she talks of her plans, Assiah nods her head in enthusiastic approval.

Plans, this dynamic duo has lots of plans - and time to make up for.

Assiah was born healthy, but after being exposed through breast-feeding to an antibiotic her mom was prescribed, she contracted hepatitis, and eventually serious liver problems. For most of her short life, it's been a whirlwind of doctors and surgeries and medication.

You'd think, now that Assiah is on the mend, it would be time for a much-needed break to enjoy life outside hospital walls. But there is no sign of slowing down from mom or daughter, a charming chatterbox who seems to instinctively know to enjoy every single moment.

It's hard to tell now that there were moments when Phinisee wasn't sure she would endure. Each day, she woke at 4 a.m. to give Assiah her medicine, something she had to continue to do all day. Any free moment was spent researching where to get the best care, and the best chance at saving her baby's life.

A single mom who grew up in the child-welfare system, Phinisee had to abandon her studies at Temple in 2010 to care for Assiah. She has only two classes left but doesn't have the money to return.

She doesn't dwell on that, not when she looks at her precocious daughter and can finally see a future ahead.

Their self-published book may be about a little girl's journey to find a liver, but at its core, it's really about helping one another through suffering, whether physical or mental or emotional.

And in that, there's a lesson for all of us. Cliché as the saying may be, life is short - and when you get a chance, or two, as in little Assiah's case, don't waste a moment of it.

ubinas@phillynews.com

215-854-5943 @NotesFromHel

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