The Challenge: Cirrhosis of the Liver
Six years of a progressive liver disease left Patricia Hurley feeling helpless and exhausted. Every morning brought the same question: How was she going to make it through the day?
“I didn’t know how I was going to get out of bed,” she said. “It was absolutely terrible. My husband wasn’t sure what he was going to wake up to.”
After experiencing variceal bleeding — an enlargement of the veins flowing through her stomach and esophagus — doctors told Patricia she had developed cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis occurs when there is ongoing damage to the liver, leading to scarring.
This build-up of scar tissue prevents the liver from performing vital functions, such as:
- Making nutrients
- Removing harmful substances from the body
- Processing blood flow
Cirrhosis also causes an increase in pressure in the portal vein, which receives blood from the stomach, small intestines, and spleen.
This pressure increase can lead to fluid building up inside the abdomen and bleeding from enlarged veins in the stomach and esophagus.
Eventually, Patricia’s cirrhosis led to many complications, including:
- Gradual weight loss and muscle wasting.
- Fluid building up inside the abdomen (ascites).
- Episodes of confusion (hepatic encephalopathy) due to toxins building up in her blood.
The more her health declined, the more her son Joe’s heart broke.
“We almost lost her in July of 2014,” said Joe. “It was so hard to see my mother have to go on such a downhill slide.”
Patricia needed a liver transplant, but doctors informed her she'd have to wait because of her low MELD score. A MELD score is a system that decides priority for transplant while on the waiting list.
Despite being very sick, Patricia was still too healthy to receive a liver transplant. She would have to remain on the transplant waiting list until her MELD score was higher.
The Path to Living Donation at UPMC
The wait for a liver transplant can sometimes take years. Unfortunately, not all patients survive until they get to the top of the waiting list.
A living-donor liver transplant offers a life-saving alternative to this waiting.
Although friends and doctors had introduced both Joe and Patricia to the idea of living donation, they weren’t familiar with the process.
Desperate to save her life, Joe and Patricia decided to research living-donor transplant further.
They soon found that living donation might be the best solution specific to Patricia’s state of illness, offering many benefits.
Patricia could schedule her surgery rather than wait on the list for a liver. This would allow the transplant to happen sooner before her health declined even further.
While this is a big operation for the donor, the liver regenerates back to full size in close to 8 weeks after surgery.
“There was no question. If I could donate a portion of my liver to my mother, I was going to do it,” Joe said.
Memorial Day weekend of 2015, the Hurleys focused on this new-found possible solution. Patricia’s gastroenterologist suggested UPMC.
The Hurley’s continued their research and said finding the Liver Transplant Program at UPMC gave them hope.
UPMC’s Liver Transplant Program is one of the oldest and largest nationwide. And it's among the top three in the country for performing living-donor liver transplants each year.
The Solution: Joe's Liver Saves His Mother's Life
After completing his living-donor liver transplant evaluation at UPMC, the team confirmed Joe was the right match for his mother.
The mother-and-son duo scheduled their surgery for Sept. 30, 2015.
“We were always healthy folks,” said Joe. “So, we weren’t really ones to know about this type of disease and procedure. But, the doctors, the coordinators, and the team truly explained how the liver works, the surgery, and how you would feel after.”
“We were in and out. We got our check-ups, our one month review. Then onto three months, six months, nine months — no issues,” said Joe.
Joe was back to work within two and a half weeks.
For Patricia, she admits that recovery was difficult but short. Within three months after her liver transplant, she was on her way to Florida for her annual winter family vacation.
After surgery, she said her symptoms went away and she no longer needed insulin. She also saw improvement in her cholesterol and diabetes and a decrease in her triglycerides.
The Results: A Second Chance at Life
Looking back at the severity of his mother’s illness, Joe is happy to see his mother doing so well.
“I think not having the option to donate would have been very hard to live with. Because, frankly, she would have passed away in six to 12 months, no question,” Joe said. “But, now here we are, two years later.”
Today, the pair is doing better than ever, and they now both focus on living life to the fullest.
“I feel like I’m 20 years old again. I drive my husband crazy,” Patricia said. “After about seven weeks’ post-surgery, I woke up one morning, and I could just tell I felt better. From then on, it was just straight uphill. I started exercising on the treadmill. I was moving around, walking around the block, and I was fine.”
Patricia said she's grateful for what she refers to as her “miracle.” She's now anxious to spread the word about living donation as a life-saving option for those faced with similar circumstances.
“I remember one day I was on the treadmill. I just thought, ‘What can I do to give thanks for getting better, for getting my life back, and for my son?’. And it came to me — just tell people.”
Joe also expressed his high praise for the UPMC Transplant Team.
“UPMC’s Thomas E. Starzl Transplant Institute is off-the-charts-wonderful. The care, the transparency, the responsiveness — you can’t ask for anything better. They made us feel like true family members.”
Patricia says she's thankful for the doctors to have the mind and ability to get her and her son through it all.
“I made a good liver for him and took it back,” she said.
Learn More About Cirrhosis and Living-Donor Liver Transplant
UPMC HealthBeat Blog:
- Can You Live Without Your Liver?
- Your Transplant Support System: Living Donor Champions
- Life After Receiving a Liver Transplant
UPMC Liver Cancer Center: