Meet Chris. A 38-year-old who lives in Belle River; whose career was built in the entertainment industry as an actor, acting coach, director, and stage play.
In 2001, at the age of 17, Chris was diagnosed with Crohn’s and a liver disease; primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). Growing up, Chris describes himself as a bigger kid, weighing 230lb and “four foot nothing,” who in high school was dealing with stomach issues – that eventually led to his diagnosis – where a glass of orange juice would burn the entire way down because, as his doctor informed him, he was filled with ulcers “from top to bottom.”
During a family dinner and a concerned reaction from a family member about his dramatic 80lb weight loss and the jaundice skin he had developed, Chris went to his doctor for his eventual diagnosis. His most notable symptoms would be his weight loss, stomach pains and jaundice skin, which had begun six months before his diagnosis. “I ended up missing the last three months of high school but still graduated with the English award. So that was a huge accomplishment even though I was dying.”
Chris took a year off and then went to college in Oshawa where he was taking entertainment administration, while also interning at Nelly Furtado’s entertainment company. In his second year of college, Chris found himself hospitalized and soon after had professors telling him he wouldn’t be able to “do this kind of life anymore and to go home.” With resiliency and determination to never let someone else dictate his life decisions, Chris would go back 10 years later to finish college.
During this time, Chris started developing debilitating pain daily which eventually led to his doctors prescribing him oxycodone to cope. What he didn’t expect though, was how this would eventually lead to a drug addiction that he never wanted, one that he didn’t choose.
“Before my first transplant, I was in college and had to leave a year early because my liver was enlarged. With PSC, my bile ducts swelled shut, blood vessels swelled shut. That pushed so much on my lungs, which led to pulmonary disease on top of my Crohn’s. Because the liver was enlarged, it felt like I was having a heart attack every day. They put me on oxytocin for three and a half years. Which was the worst part, especially trying to get off it. Most of my life during that time was spent watching reality television, my sister would take me out once a month, I would go get DVDs, and watch a lot of reality television to help pass the time during those years.”
“I never knew what addiction was until I realized ‘Oh, one pill wasn’t working.’”
Chris and his family would tell the doctors that he would fall asleep at the dinner table, but the reality was, he was just so heavily drugged that he would pass out during a meal. His perspective now on addiction is more gracious and understanding.
“When you go on social media, and you hear people saying that ’Drug addicts deserve it.’ No, you don’t know why a drug addict is a drug addict. This was not my choice.”
During that time, Chris was put on the transplant list to receive a new liver. Eventually, in 2008, Chris’ health had declined so badly, he was admitted to the hospital just to be put on the top of the transplant list. Chris’ health was declining very quickly.
In December 2008, Chris received his first of two liver transplants. Because of his lung disease, he was admitted to the hospital for 75 days after his transplant because of the extra recovery time needed for his lungs. At the time, Chris was incredibly honest with the hospital about his addiction to pain medication. “I was very honest with them about how long I had been prescribed oxy and that I would need some help getting off of it, but they insisted that I was just looking to get more drugs. They told me when I was leaving that I would get one more prescription and after that I would have to deal with the pain on my own.” Four months after that, Chris was diagnosed with lymphoma that was perforating through his bowel.
After that, things seemed to even out and Chris returned to his career in the entertainment world. He was working again at a theatre company – directing, writing shows, and coaching – and went back to finish school. His physical health plateaued after his transplant, but Chris was struggling deeply with the mental and emotional aftermath.
“The hardest part of it is that no one understands the mental aspect of this [liver disease]. Physically, I’m doing great but mentally, I’m a mess.”
In December 2017, after a reckless season of life, Chris found himself at a family dinner after a streak of five days with a headache. The dinner would later end with a trip to the hospital. Once they arrived at the hospital after incessant urgings from his father – who always a sixth sense about what Chris needed – the nurses informed Chris’ father that his liver was shutting down and that Chris was on the verge of dying.
After a couple weeks back and forth in the hospital, they sent him the transplant ward in London, ON. The last thing he remembers after arriving at the transplant ward was his dad asking him if he wanted can of soda. He then went into a state of delirium where Chris thought he was being held for murder.
“I got a little reckless between the first and the second [transplant] because I became resentful towards the world. Whereas with the second [transplant], I took it a day at a time. Movie at a time, show at a time, 10 minutes at a time. It was a blessing in disguise to be here now and feel like I’m in a good place with my liver.”
CLF: How does it affect your day-to-day?
“The mental aspect of dealing with the opinions of other people on the outside. When I’m having an off day, some people can make it seem like I’m milking a moment instead of having more understanding.”
Chris is now in the midst of dealing with the diagnosis of being pre-diabetic and learning to watch what he eats, which is another entirely new territory in terms of his health.
“I’m finally at a point where I’m healthy – liver-wise – [I now have] the whole pre-diabetes, but again, that’s from all the medication that I’m on. You deal with one thing but then all the medication causes all this other stuff.”
“I would love to do something for a children’s book about transplants. My whole thing when I was getting diagnosed, was I told my doctor, please talk to me like I’m three. It’s easy when you break it down in simple terms, so why wouldn’t you put it into education?”
CLF: What do you want people to know about liver disease and why are you choosing to share your story?
“The understanding. I want people to know that there’s hurdles to jump and I hope for them to have a little bit of patience with for Canadians living with liver disease.”
Chris’ last words of wisdom are resounding and apply to life no matter the diagnosis.
“Perspective is everything and if I only have five good years left, I want them to be the best five years of my life. I had ten years in between my transplants. I’m aware that this [liver disease] could come back. I want to make sure I’m not passing up any moments.”