Teenager organizes toy drive to give back to transplant team

University of Michigan

After a liver transplant drastically improved Avery Brusseau's life, the 13-year-old decided to collect more than 1,000 toys for future patients.

  • Author
    Mary Clare Fischer
Girl standing near shopping cart full of store items. Girl sitting in truck full of store items.
To celebrate the five-year anniversary of Avery Brusseau's liver transplant, the 13-year-old organized a toy drive for C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. Photos courtesy of Candi Brusseau.

In 2016, Avery Brusseau was watching life pass her by.

Biliary atresia, a disease in which the bile ducts that help drain the liver don't form properly, was making the 8-year-old sick and tired and cold all the time. In the middle of summer, she would sit wrapped up in a blanket as her friends played around her. She spent more time in the hospital than at home.

"Her body was just done," her mom, Candi, said.

But after a liver transplant at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, Avery was able to bake cakes, travel for gymnastics meets and make TikTok videos with her friends.

"Life has been amazing since then," Candi said. "You would never know that she basically spent eight years in the hospital. We are so appreciative of the entire transplant team, from all of Avery's nurses to all of her doctors. They are like family now, and we will always be grateful for the life she has been given. If you put your trust in the right people, especially at U-M, especially at Mott, they're not going to let you down."

SEE ALSO: A Birthday Gift with Heart: Healthy Tween Celebrates Her Transplant

In 2021, to celebrate her five-year-transplant anniversary, Avery wanted to return the gift her Mott providers had given her and her family. She set a deadline of a month to collect 1,000 toys - the number she estimated she played with through child life services, a group which aims to reduce the stress and anxiety associated with illness, over the course of her many hospitalizations at Mott.

"I just wanted to think of something to do to give back to child life," Avery said. "I've been in child life a lot, and they always had toys there - board games and crafts and painting - that I like."

"I remember saying, '1,000's a lot, but OK, let's try,'" Candi said.

The drive to give back

The family placed donation boxes at Avery's brother's school and at her father's workplace, and Candi posted about their mission on her Facebook page and told colleagues about it at her job.

Avery's gymnastics complex asked those who attended their open gyms to bring a toy instead of paying the typical fee. Both mother and daughter did an interview with local radio station WHMI 93.5 FM.

"I'm still always surprised at how some of these kids who have had transplants will be thinking outward. It's their way of trying to make it easier for the next people down the line."
Jacob Lyman Leonard Bilhartz, MD

Their marketing push worked: Within about 12 days, Avery had reached her ambitious target. By the end of the month, she'd gathered 1,614 toys plus an additional $400 in gift cards and money.

"The donations just kept coming in," Candi said.

Avery planned to use the gift cards and cash donations to buy even more toys at the Target in Hartland, Michigan, near where she and her family live.

More surprises were to come: The manager at the Target donated an additional $200, and one of the Brusseaus' neighbors, who works at the store, decorated a cart with streamers and a banner for Avery's shopping trip that read, "Welcome, Avery."

SEE ALSO: Children's Book About Transplant Surgery Inspired by Young Patient

When asked how she felt about the kind gestures, Avery said, "The cart was really pretty!"

The big day

The support kept flowing. A man who worked for U-M's office of security had heard Avery and Candi's interview on WHMI and offered to load up most of the toys in his trailer and take them to the hospital. Avery and her mom took the remainder to Mott on Dec. 1 - five years to the day after her transplant.

Avery said the experience of donating the toys was "fun but scary." Channel 7 had arrived to do a television interview, and she was worried about talking to them. But it helped that Jacob Bilhartz, M.D., Avery's main physician on the transplant team, was there.

"He helps me a lot, and he saved my life, and I like to annoy him at transplant camp," Avery said. "He was proud of me."

"I'm still always surprised at how some of these kids who have had transplants, like Avery, will be thinking outward," Bilhartz said. "They've been through all this incredibly difficult stuff themselves that no one wants to deal with. But because these are kids who've lived a lot of time in the hospital, they know what it's like. It's their way of trying to make it easier for the next people down the line."

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