Theresa Reno, MD, PhD
Einstein Untold: Unsung Heroes and Unknown Stories

Doctor’s Gift of Life Saved Her Mother

By on 09/12/2022

One in an ongoing series

Theresa Reno knew from the time she was a child that she wanted to become a doctor. She was fascinated by surgeries she saw performed on what was then The Learning Channel, and wore scrubs on career day at school.

But Reno’s mother, who was a pediatric nurse, dissuaded her from going to medical school; she’d seen too many friends and coworkers struggle under the duress of being a healthcare provider.  

Reno’s mother “loved being a nurse, but her motherly instinct made her want to protect me,” Reno says. “She had friends who were physicians and she saw them suffer financially and emotionally.”

So Reno majored in biochemistry and got her PhD instead of an MD.

“As a bio-chem major, I knew I’d be a scientist. But deep down, in the back of my mind, I knew I loved medicine,” she says. “It never left me.”

She continued flirting with medical school as an undergrad, taking pre-med classes that weren’t required for her degree and, as a PhD student, taking programs meant for graduate students considering medical school.

A Doctor at Last

Now Reno – make that Dr. Reno – is a second-year resident in internal medicine at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. She had avoided her lifelong dream to appease her mother. She later embraced it in part because of her mother, too.

Six years ago, Dr. Reno donated part of her liver to save her mother’s life, an experience that helped convince her to become an MD.

In 2016, when Dr. Reno was working in cancer research, her mother’s autoimmune liver disease became so acute that she was hospitalized repeatedly.  Her mother’s liver was so scarred that it couldn’t process ammonia, which kept accumulating in her brain.

“It will make you confused and lethargic and can lead to coma and death,” Dr. Reno says.

“I started to apply to medical school around the time my mom got really sick,” she says. “I don’t know if that was the impetus in a way – helping her and doing everything I needed to do with her. I was at the hospital more and more, and I saw this was what I needed to be doing.”

Dr. Reno’s mother was put on the transplant list. But her MELD score – the Model for End-Stage Liver Disease that measures the severity of the illness and likelihood of dying within three months – wasn’t at the top range. It was unlikely that she’d become eligible for a liver from a deceased donor any time soon, because organs for transplant are so scarce. And Dr. Reno would soon be leaving her mother’s home in California to go across country for medical school.

A Living Liver Donor

“I didn’t want to leave her while she was so sick,” she says. “Things were not going well. I said, ‘Let’s do a living donor. It’s the only way.’”

In June of 2016, part of Dr. Reno’s liver was removed – livers regenerate in time – and transplanted into her mother.

“It was tough at first,” Dr. Reno says of the surgery. “My mom was able to get out of bed before I could. She came into my room at the hospital, and she cried because I was so sick.”

Her mother was discharged from the hospital just in time for Dr. Reno to leave for medical school. Six weeks after donating her liver, Dr. Reno drove an RV across the country with her boyfriend and three cats to attend medical school in Pittsburgh.

She came to Einstein as a resident in July of 2021. Being a medical provider is everything she wanted it to be. But yes, there are times she’s reminded of her mother’s admonition about the duress of a life in healthcare.

“I definitely have experienced the stress,” she says. “There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t think about your patients, about something that happened that day or something you could have done better or different.”

But “we have a really good support system,” she says about her program at Einstein. To relax, she plays with her cats and is teaching herself to crochet.

Dr. Reno’s mother has long since recovered and is doing “great,” Dr. Reno says. Her mother retired from nursing and spends her time gardening and socializing with her friends.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Reno has chosen liver transplant hepatology as the medical specialty she wants to pursue. This time with her mother’s blessing.

“I am very proud of my daughter,” Patricia Reno says.

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