Joe Signs, 67, owns and operates a family sales and service business in Owego, N.Y. with his son. They repaired broken or mistreated farm equipment and other household items to return them to their former glory. However, the equipment coming in and out of their repair shop wasn’t the only thing that required attention.
In 2019, Joe noticed an unusual bulge near his groin. After scheduling an appointment with his primary care physician, doctors told Joe that he had cancer. From there, he was referred to another practice for further evaluation. Once Joe and his wife, Donna, arrived at the hospital in New York, they learned that his bulge was not cancer, but rather a result of liver failure.
“We were thrown when he was told that he had cirrhosis and not cancer,” said Donna. “All we wanted was for Joe to get the help he needed.”
The Path to UPMC
After talking with a family friend about liver transplant, Joe was referred to UPMC.
When arriving at UPMC Montefiore for evaluation, doctors informed Joe and Donna about the benefits of living-donor liver transplant, including improved long-term outcomes, quicker recovery times, and reduced time spent on the transplant waiting list.
There are various ways for people like Joe to find a living donor.
If you walked into the Signs’ repair shop in 2021, chances are you may have seen a sign created by Joe’s daughter-in-law that read, “Can you spare a sliver of your liver?” to help spread the word about Joe’s need for a liver transplant. Donna also created a Facebook page to reach people outside of their community.
“The more people that knew about Joe’s condition, the better,” said Donna.
A Generational Relationship
Fritz Rudin, 39, is a longtime family friend. His grandfather was good friends with Joe’s father, and now Fritz has known Joe ever since he could remember. Although Fritz didn’t speak to Joe often, he knew he had to do something to help.
“I never even had Joe’s phone number and mostly saw him in the repair shop when I would drop things off,” said Fritz. “But our families were close and when I saw the poster in the shop, I knew I wanted to help.”
After gathering more information from Joe’s daughter-in-law, Fritz traveled from Owego, N.Y., to Pittsburgh to be evaluated as a living donor. Fritz was compatible with Joe, and the transplant date was set.
“Not too many people knew I was Joe’s living donor until the day of transplant,” said Fritz.
“I gave permission to Joe’s son and his wife to let him know that I was going to be his living donor, but they didn’t say anything, which was fine. It wasn’t about me, and it still isn’t. I just wanted Joe to live a better life.”
The Gift of Life
Joe and Donna were sitting in the waiting room the day of the transplant when Fritz walked in.
“Hey Joe, what are you doing here?” Fritz asked causally as he handed him a get-well card. At that moment, they realized he was going to be Joe’s living donor.
“My and Joe’s jaws dropped to the ground when we saw Fritz,” said Donna. “Joe asked him ‘but why?’ and his response was ‘why not?’ That’s just the kind of person Fritz is.”
In March 2022, Joe and Fritz underwent a living-donor liver transplant and are both doing well in their recoveries. After their surgery, Fritz went to see how Joe was doing a few rooms away.
“He looked incredible,” said Fritz. “The yellow in his face was gone and at that moment, I knew it was all worth it.”
Fritz started running again and returned to work on light duty four weeks posttransplant.
“The whole transplant experience at UPMC was easy for me,” said Fritz. “My life was interrupted very minimally, and I had little to no pain after surgery.”
Donna is Joe’s primary caretaker and sees a major difference in him after transplant. Joe has since passed his business down to his son.
“He looks unbelievable. His color is back, and he isn’t tired anymore,” said Donna.
To become Joe’s living donor, Fritz needed to take some time away from work to make sure he was healthy enough for transplant and to accommodate appointments and tests. His colleagues at work were given the option to donate their paid-time-off to Fritz if he needed it to help prepare and recover from surgery.
“Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to donate,” said Fritz. “Transplant is a team game.”
Donna expressed her appreciation for UPMC and said she wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.
“I have chills throughout my whole body when I think about the care at UPMC,” said Donna. “Everyone from the coordinators, nurses, doctors, and janitors was great. My husband can now see his grandkids grow up, thanks to UPMC.”
Joe and Fritz’s treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.