To Live Again

THE TRANSPLANT BOOM

Three patients: A successful organ transplant is often referred to as a rebirth. That doesn't mean it's easy.

March 25, 1996|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Every day in the United States someone is saved and transformed by a transplant. In fact, the transplant boom at hospitals like the University of Maryland have made getting a new body part seem almost routine. But for the 18,000 people who receive transplants each year, the experience is nothing short of a physical, emotional and spiritual rebirth.

"You have two birthdays. That's how you think of it," says Jerry Lebowitz, who received a new liver two years ago at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's a very powerful experience."

Yet no two transplants are alike. Some come after many years of illness and agonizing waits for an organ. Others occur with breathtaking speed after a sudden, devastating illness. The medical miracle is well-documented, but little is known of the patients' experiences afterward.

Life after transplant begins with a daily dose of up to 60 pills to suppress the immune system so it won't attack the new organ. With their immune system de-activated, patients are highly vulnerable to infections for the rest of their lives.

Other possible side effects include massive hair growth, high blood pressure, impotence or sexual overdrive, fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, episodes of rage, memory loss and depression.

In addition to the physical battles, transplant patients find themselves confronting a myriad of psychological and social issues: how to think about the organ, the donor and the donor's family; how to handle people who think of them as freaks; whether to marry and have children, and how to work when they tire easily. Some return to work in five weeks and experience few side effects. Others never make the transition. For them, a transplant is not a cure. Instead it leads to a life of chronic illness.

Here are the stories of three patients who experienced the long ** wait for an organ, the frustration of recovering, and the joy of a second chance at life.

On Valentine's Day, Marcia Leavey helped excited 4-year-olds in her pre-kindergarten class at Frederick Elementary School paste together mosaics and handed out bags of goodies for their holiday party.

A year ago, the Baltimore teacher and mother of four didn't have the energy to pat a child's head or read a story book. With almost no warning, Mrs. Leavey's liver began to shut down. Before she knew it, she was in the University of Maryland's intensive care unit. Her husband, Marc, a Towson internist, knew from reading her charts that she had less than 72 hours to live.

Even today, no one is sure what happened. Her condition is called fulminant liver failure a catch-all for healthy people who suddenly fall off a cliff. Most would die without a transplant.

Despite widely publicized transplants for Mickey Mantle and Larry Hagman, alcoholics make up only 20 to 25 percent of liver transplant patients. Most are like Mrs. Leavey; they have lost their livers to hepatitis or causes unknown.

For 10 days, Mrs. Leavey was a Status One patient first on the list of people needing livers in Maryland. Her eyes were yellow and her blood had lost its ability to clot, making a small cut potentially fatal. On Thursday, April 19, she went into a coma.

Her husband sang to her, hoping his voice would awaken her. Finally, Friday night, time ran out for another patient at the hospital, a 15-year-old boy with lung disease. His family offered his liver. "We think we have a match," Lynt Johnson, the transplant surgeon, told Dr. Leavey.

Aside from a few minor complications, Mrs. Leavey's new liver has functioned beautifully. She has few side effects from her anti-rejection drugs and is down to only nine pills a day. Her new liver should last the rest of her life. But every time she hears the statistics about how many people die waiting for organs, she thinks, "I could have been one of them."

After the transplant, the family of her young donor expressed interest in meeting her. But Mrs. Leavey was afraid. She felt something like guilt, but not quite that. "I don't know if guilty is the right word. Realistically I had nothing to do with this person's dying."

But now she has written them to say she would like to thank them in person. "They have been through such a tragedy. I'm sure they are lovely people. They didn't have to do it. I can't even use the word generous."

She only learned recently that the boy was himself waiting for a lung to be donated. "If I had died, I might have been able to save his life," she says. "We were the same blood type."

In her letter, she told his parents how she's preparing for her daughter Amy's wedding. How she went back to a job she loves. How she's planning a family vacation. "It's changed our lives a lot," she says.

After 20 years of marriage, the Leaveys had lapsed into a certain "for-grantedness taken," her husband says. "Now, a day doesn't go by when I don't see the miracle. It opens your eyes to what is important."

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