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‘Domino’ transplant saves two babies’ lives

Two infants in Columbus, Ohio, are alive and healthy thanks to an anonymous organ donor and a pair of remarkable transplant surgeries. NBC's Lisa Daniels reports.

Without a lung transplant, 3-month-old Jason Wolfe had days to live, at best.

“I was just hoping if he heard my voice, he would keep hanging,” remembers his mother, Maria.

Down the hall at Columbus Children’s Hospital, 12-week-old Kayla Richardson needed a heart transplant. Her mom was torn about praying for one.

“I didn't really want another baby to die to save her life,” says Kayla’s mother, Rebecca Lovins.

There aren't many organ donors for babies. Then, two weeks ago, something tragic and remarkable happened. Doctors learned a baby from out-of-state had died whose organs were compatible with both Jason and Kayla. The surgeons decided to perform a rare procedure called a "domino" transplant.

Here's how it worked. Surgeons took the heart and lungs from the anonymous donor and put both into Jason. Then they took Jason's healthy heart and gave it to Kayla.

“If you do the lungs alone, there's more suturing, more sewing in the airways than if you do the heart-lung combined,” says Dr. Tim Hoffman with Columbia Children's Hospital.

For 12 hours, two teams of doctors worked in side-by-side operating rooms. These surgeries are especially delicate because the babies' hearts are so small — the size of a golf ball.

“There's a lot of very important stitches and incisions and cuts that have to be perfect,” says Dr. Mark Galantowicz, one of the surgeons who assisted in the procedure. “The margin of error is tiny.”

Jason and Kayla are the youngest living donor and recipient of a heart. Doctors say both are past the critical stage.

"I'm just happy!” says Maria. “Excited.”

“It’s a great feeling to look at her knowing she's healthy, knowing she'll make it,” says Kayla’s father, Robert.

Now the parents are committed to keeping their children connected.

“I envision them being really close, growing up together, really relying on each other,” says Rebecca.

The gift of life — from one baby to another to another — now forever connected with every heartbeat.