First, the shock - then lifesaving surgery

Neighbors

October 26, 2007|By Janene Holzberg

When she regained consciousness after surgery, Megan Weber tried to mouth "What is it?" despite the breathing tube in her parched throat. Getting odd looks from her family, who had gathered around her hospital bed, she tried rocking an invisible infant in her arms and raising her eyebrows to communicate.

Still groggy from residual anesthesia and sore from an abdominal incision, Weber thought she had given birth by Caesarean section.

But there was no newborn baby. Weber, then 21, was not pregnant. She had given birth to a son six months earlier.

Instead, family members told her of the lifesaving liver transplant surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Doctors there had given her three days to live when she arrived at the emergency room Jan. 31.

"None of us, including Megan herself, knew she was even sick before this," said her father, Tim Weber. "You can imagine our shock at being told she only had 72 hours to live" without a transplant.

To show their appreciation for the donated liver that saved Megan's life, Tim and his wife, Kathy, who own Cattails Country Florist in Woodbine, will offer free fall bouquets next month to everyone who can prove they are organ donors or who registers to become one.

"We thought that since Thanksgiving takes place in November, it would be the best time to show how much the organ donor program has meant to our family," said Tim, who remarried two years ago. "We may go broke, but we plan to do this every year - it's that important to us to get the word out that we can all save someone's life."

Amazingly, Megan's health scare didn't start with her sudden liver failure.

A month before the surgery, Megan had broken her back when her car flipped after swerving to avoid a deer on Marriottsville Road. Doctors at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center prescribed oxycodone, a powerful painkiller containing acetaminophen, and discharged her the same night in a back brace, Tim said.

But the medication was not managing her pain and made her drowsy, so Megan said she decided to use over-the-counter acetaminophen as both a substitute and a supplement for her prescription.

This strategy had allowed her to get through the month of January, or so she thought. On Jan. 31, Megan suddenly became incoherent, Tim said. Because she was living in Randallstown, she was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room of Northwest Hospital Center, where blood tests immediately indicated acute liver failure, Tim said.

"Megan didn't injure her liver in the car accident, and so we were upset and confused by this diagnosis," her father said.

Megan was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital and the staff there quickly discovered that her liver had failed because of an overdose of acetaminophen, he said. Known as acetaminophen toxicity, the condition is caused by large amounts of the drug interfering with the liver's normal functions.

Megan was placed fourth on the United Network for Organ Sharing waiting list for a liver for Region 2, which includes Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In Maryland, about 450 people are waiting for a liver transplant, said Tricia Van De Ryt, director of communications for the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, an organ and tissue donation program in Halethorpe. Nationally, nearly 17,000 names appear on the waiting list for a liver, she said, adding that 18 patients die each day awaiting all types of transplants.

Doctors told the Webers that because it was unlikely they would locate a donated liver in time to save Megan, family members and friends must be tested to see if one of them could be a donor.

"I went into the bathroom at the hospital to pray because I didn't want my family to see me falling apart," Tim said. "I got down on my knees and prayed to God to let me be a match for Megan."

But it was her brother, Michael Weber, who proved to be the only perfect match of the 15 people tested.

"When doctors sat me down and told me the risks involved in being a donor, I still didn't fear the surgery," said Michael, who was 19 at the time. "I just wanted to save Megan. I was so scared I was going to lose my sister."

Doctors had begun preparing Michael for the operation, in which 60 percent of his liver would be removed and transplanted into Megan. The liver is the only organ that can regenerate tissue, so Michael's liver would grow to its appropriate size again, doctors had said.

With the hours counting down Feb. 2, word came that a liver was available in Puerto Rico. Dr. Warren Maley, surgical director of the liver transplant team, flew to the U.S. territory to examine the liver and returned with it that night. Megan's surgery took place about midnight.

The procedure lasted seven hours, and Megan woke up during the Super Bowl on Feb. 4. But she still wasn't out of the woods and required resuscitation three times, as fluid kept building up in her lungs and she couldn't breathe.

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