In 1987, 2-year-old Rita Erickson was propelled into the spotlight because her liver was failing. She needed a transplant, doctors said, and her Columbia Heights family needed help paying for the surgery.

The media coverage that followed — the Star Tribune wrote about her five times in two weeks — documented several successful community fundraisers and her liver transplant, rare for a toddler. The operation nearly failed, but at the last minute, her new liver began functioning. Rita lived — and faded out of the public eye.

“It’s very interesting for me to sit down and read about it [in articles] because I really don’t remember it,” she said.

Today, Rita, 30, has a job in the financial industry, a home in Elk River and a boyfriend she’s planning to marry. And she’s doing two things doctors said she never would: She’s given birth to a baby girl and will likely stop taking her last anti-rejection drug, prescribed so her body wouldn’t attack her liver.

“She was told she’d be on [the drugs] for the rest of her life,” said her mother, Sandra Erickson. “All the effects from going through that whole transplant are going to be over, finally.”

An early diagnosis

As a newborn, Rita’s limbs were limp, and “she didn’t seem to eat very well,” her mom said. The doctor diagnosed her with biliary atresia, a rare condition resulting in liver ducts that don’t work, or an absence of ducts altogether. It’s not clear what causes it, Rita Erickson said.

Physicians said it was “the worst case of biliary atresia they had ever seen,” Sandra Erickson said.

The little girl was given a month to live, but then her liver started working — barely — and her prognosis improved.

Rita’s aunt and several other family members began publicizing her situation and raising money, too. The surgery’s estimated cost was $250,000, and Rita no longer had insurance after her parents’ divorce.

The Columbia Heights community helped out, with one man camping out on a roof to raise funds. His stunt alone raised $60,000.

The stream of fundraisers kept Rita’s plight in the news, Sandra Erickson said. The community raised $266,000.

Rita received a new liver, but the drama continued when the organ wouldn’t function. Finally, it kicked in after 36 hours.

Beating the odds

Rita said spending those early years in a hospital bed still affects her today.

“My mom couldn’t get me to smile,” she said. “I think I developed a kind of depression from it.”

In elementary school, the steroids she had to take gave her hairy arms. Kids made fun of her, she said.

Sandra Erickson remembers being told when Rita was young that it would be dangerous for Rita to someday have a baby. She would have to go off her medicine, doctors thought, which could make her body reject her liver.

But Rita got better news when doctors told her getting pregnant was possible. Ten weeks ago, Rita gave birth to a healthy daughter, Theresa Rose, and she hopes doctors will soon give her the go-ahead to stop taking her last anti-rejection drug.

“Never for a minute” did Sandra Erickson think her daughter could have such a normal life, she said.

Rita said she better understands what her mom had gone through.

“I’ve realized how incredible life is, and how incredibly fragile life is, too.”