A Gift of Renewed Life
by Regina Williams
Miracles happen. I believe that how I survived liver failure was a miracle, and it continues to affect me and those around me. The individual pieces of this story are not in themselves miraculous: science and surgical skills result from hard work; the loving generosity of a son is not unknown or unique. How everything came together in just this way and not another so the story had this happy ending and not another—that's the miracle.
I knew nothing about liver disease until my liver suddenly failed in 1996 and I spent a month in my local hospital in New Jersey. I recovered in a few months and went back to teaching college. I learned (good old Google) there were more than fifty causes of hepatitis (liver inflammation) and the resulting cirrhosis (scarring), which in my case had been going on undetected for years. I had autoimmune liver disease—my own immune system was rejecting my liver. The increasing fatigue and muscle and bone degeneration was very gradual, but I eventually had to stop working and doing the things I loved—singing in a chorus, participating in church activities, going to theatre and concerts. By March 2004, after a fall and broken hip, it was clear to the doctors at NYP-CLDT that I needed a transplant very soon. I was not high on the waiting list—lots of very sick people and not enough organs, and the MELD ranking didn't measure how far gone my liver was. This meant I might not get a liver from a deceased organ donor in time.
My son, Paul, had read about living donation, in which one-half to two-thirds of the donor's liver is transplanted. The donor's remaining liver quickly regenerates (within six to eight weeks). Paul told me he wanted to be a donor for me. I told him absolutely not; he has a family—a wife and two young daughters. Though I knew and appreciated that he offered this gift out of love, I could not accept, for fear of jeopardizing his life or health.
Paul has the same blood type as me, so ignoring my protests he proceeded to have tests of his own health and ability to undergo the surgery safely. He assessed the risks, which for a young, healthy donor are extremely small. A date was set—June 23, 2004. Even so, I was not yet decided about letting it happen. How could I put my son at risk? Wouldn't this make me an unnatural mother? I spent many sleepless nights, doing a lot of praying, mostly of the tearful, begging kind—"God please give me an answer."
I realized months after the surgery that my approach to making this decision was self-centered. What about Paul? How could I not accept Paul's offer to save my life? How would he feel if, six months or a year later I became too ill to survive a transplant and died? He had already gone through his own debate and reached a decision. He had gone through the tests and worried about his family. Could I really say thanks but no thanks, whatever my reasons?
I gradually felt less anxious and was able, finally, to give up my seemingly endless inner deliberations. I came to believe deeply that God would protect Paul and me. I could accept the negligible–but existent–risk to Paul and trust the skills of the surgeons because I knew God would be there with us all. So, one and a half weeks before the surgery date, we were finally both at peace with the decision to proceed.
I know only what I was told afterwards, of course, about the surgeries—hugely successful, though longer than expected due to Paul's large (and healthy) liver. My primary surgeon, Dr. Jean Emond, a gem of a man and a surgical genius, told the waiting family that we were both doing fine and that he had held my poor liver, the size of a large grapefruit, in the palm of his hand. Later, when he visited me in my hospital room (on a Sunday afternoon!) he called me his "miracle lady." I told him he was my miracle doctor, Paul my miracle son, and that I was just plain stubborn.
Paul and I are doing great, livers functioning perfectly. Proof of success is that mean jitterbug Paul and I did six months later, at the post-liver-transplant holiday party, with Dr. Hafliger (a dancer extraordinaire) and other transplant recipients. Paul's "Doin' the Twist" was worthy of Travolta. Paul has since run three marathons in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. I can't help bragging, being his mother.
I am back to choral singing (four concerts a year) and church solos; helping out where I can be of service in church work; attending the CLDT post-transplant support group; and assisting in getting out the "Liver Connections" newsletter. I'm even considering doing some teaching as an adjunct at the university I recently retired from.
My successful liver transplant has affected me and my family in more ways than the physical. It has strengthened the bond between Paul and me, between me and his family. It has brought our whole, extended family and friends closer. We all are constantly aware of the miracle this gift was and continues to be.