Fat Destroyed Her Liver, A Transplant Saved Her Life

Fat Destroyed Her Liver, A Transplant Saved Her Life

On a Friday evening in the spring of 2010 after a long work week, Debbie was rushed to hospital after she began throwing up blood and noticing her stools were black. Spending weeks in and out of Ottawa General Hospital, Debbie underwent testing via  bloodwork, ultrasounds and MRI’s until she was finally diagnosed with a disease she had never heard of before—non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)—the most severe form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

NAFLD begins when too much fat is stored in the liver, usually caused by a poor diet and lack of exercise. Unfortunately, Debbie was not only unknowingly living with this liver disease that affects over 7 million Canadians, but also presented many of the significant risk factors including being overweight, and having type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. When NAFLD is left untreated like in Debbie’s case, scarring (cirrhosis) occurs, and liver cancer or liver failure can be not far behind.

“My specialist encouraged me to follow more holistic methods like eating healthy and getting active after I was diagnosed,” says Debbie. “Unfortunately, this all became nearly impossible once the toxins began to fill in my body.”

Debbie smiles in front of a crowd of people walking through a park. Large green trees can be seen around her.
Debbie was living unaware that her liver was being slowly damaged by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, leading her to severe cirrhosis and liver failure.

By the end of April in 2011, Debbie’s condition had worsened due to excess toxins building up in her body and affecting her brain (a condition known as hepatic encephalopathy). Her health began to deteriorate so much so that she was no longer able to work or drive safely.  Eventually, her family decided that it was dangerous for Debbie to be living alone any longer and moved her in with her elderly mother.

In the meantime, Debbie’s specialist made prompt arrangements for her to see the liver transplant team at Toronto General Hospital. Debbie relied on her sister Cindy to take her to all of her appointments in Toronto that would determine if she could be put on a liver transplant list.

With her condition worsening, Debbie was placed on the transplant waiting list in just six months. Her family was told that it could take up to seven years for a deceased organ donor and encouraged to look for matching live donor within family or friends.

Doctors in green scrubs look down at a patient on the operating table during a liver transplant. There are large medical lights overhead, and a machine on the right side of the frame. Patients of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease that are not diagnosed early enough can progress to needing a liver transplant, just like Debbie.
Doctors can perform liver transplant surgeries for 10-12 hours depending on the complexity of the surgery.

Despite her reluctance, Debbie eventually brought up the matter with her family and almost immediately, her youngest brother, David, had undergone all the tests and was determined to be Debbie’s match.

David’s liver biopsy showed that he too had too much fat in his liver and was told that he could not be Debbie’s donor until he lost 40 lbs and reduced the fat in his liver to zero. Over the next three months, David followed a closely monitored liquid diet to ensure he safely lost the fat in his liver.

Numerous biopsies and a couple of cancelled surgery dates later, David was clear to donate two-thirds of his liver to Debbie. The surgery was successfully completed in April of 2012.

When surgeons removed Debbie’s diseased liver, it was a solid mass of scar tissue. Debbie spent a week in the hospital recovering, and another month living close by for follow-up appointments. Her recovery had it’s ups and downs, having to return to Toronto twice over the following months to stretch out her bile ducts and alleviate the itching that excess bile was causing her.

Debbie and David post transplant surgery.

“The first thing everyone noticed after my transplant was the colour of my skin—I wasn’t yellow anymore,” says Debbie. “My medication has had to get adjusted a couple of times due to complications like high blood pressure and kidney problems, but I’m now coming up on the 7th anniversary of my transplant, and I feel great!”

Only two months after her liver transplant, Debbie accomplished an incredible feat by organizing a team for the Canadian Liver Foundation’s Stroll for Liver in Ottawa. Alongside family and friends, Debbie raised $2,000 in only one week. This experience led her to meet many other transplant recipients with whom she shared her story, and made long-lasting relationships.

A group of people pose in a large group holding a "Stroll for Liver" banner. They are in a park, standing on grass with some evergreen trees in the background. Each person picture is wearing a white Stroll for Liver t-shirt, and some have sunglasses and backpacks on.
Debbie and her family alongside tons of participants at the Ottawa Stroll for Liver

Having been taken by surprise by her liver disease diagnosis, Debbie remains committed to raising awareness and helping to fundraise for liver research so others will not have to endure the terrible experiences she has.

“I have joined the CLF volunteer group here in Ottawa and have raised funds at every Ottawa Stroll for Liver since 2012,” says Debbie. “I’m continuing to share my story with many who are waiting on the transplant list and others who were diagnosed with NASH as well.”

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