Editor’s note: This article is part of a feature called Follow-up in which BDN staff update stories from the past to inform readers of the on-going effects of the subjects covered in the initial reports and any new developments.
ELLSWORTH, Maine — The smiles and laughter come easily to two longtime friends, as it did a year ago as they waited. Their eyes sparkle with the same vitality that is now filled perhaps with a sense of relief that for them, the worst is over, and, yes, better is still to come.
Jan Watson of Surry and Deb Hubbard of Cherryfield talk easily about the marathon surgery the two went through exactly 10 months ago last Saturday in Connecticut to transplant a portion of Hubbard’s healthy liver to replace Watson’s liver. Watson suffered from a debilitating illness — hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia — a hereditary disease was pumping too much blood to her heart while sapping blood from other parts of her body.
Their surgery was a milestone for the transplant unit at the Yale Medical Center in New Haven, Conn. They were the first live donor liver transplant at that facility. The surgery has made them stars of the transplant unit at Yale, especially since it has been a success and both women have since returned to their jobs at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth.
There were times, though, that they were unsure they would make it to the operating room.
At this time last year, the two women were anxiously awaiting final approval for the operation. They already had been through several batteries of tests, but the transplant team from Yale wanted one more blood test, just to make sure, and a biopsy of the healthy liver.
“I think both of us were really frustrated at this point last year,” Watson said.
While at Yale, they both had seen and met people who were waiting to find a suitable donor. Some had been through the process several times without finding a match.
“I kept worrying that she would have to start all over again with another donor,” she said.
Watson added that “both of us knew that it would not be as easy to try to get a second person to go through this.”
It wasn’t until Watson was outside the operating room on April 26 that the transplant became a reality for her.
“I remember sitting there waiting to go into the operating room, and the nurse came out and said to me ‘You have a pristine liver,”’ Watson recalled. “That was the dawn of reality. It hit me that they’d already opened Deb up.”
The surgeries were long. And the recovery has lasted longer and has been harder than they anticipated. But both women are doing well. The sections of the healthy liver have regenerated in both women and, though Watson remains on anti-rejection drugs, there’s no indication that they need to worry about that.
Hubbard was home before Memorial Day. An avid runner, she was restricted in her activities. But she began walking regularly and later began to swim. She was not able to run the annual MDI Marathon last October, but she did walk the 26.1 miles to keep her string intact.
Fellow workers and family members joined her for parts of the race, but she finished the marathon alone.
“It was great to walk across that finish line,” she said, noting that she finished in five hours, 58 minutes. “It was very emotional. Just to feel so good.”
Hubbard is now running again, and though she gets tired faster and has to sleep more, she is knocking off 15 mile runs. She is back to work, and though co-workers would send her home often if she looked tired, she said she is now almost completely back to normal.
Watson’s progress has been slower. She had a goal of walking the 5k race on Hubbard’s marathon day, but in October, she was still in Connecticut. And some lingering medical issues kept her going back and forth to Yale through the fall.
But Christmas shopping was a milestone for her.
“Last year I walked into a store and had to find someplace to sit down,” she said. “This year we went to Bangor, and we shopped for three hours and I was able to maintain that. I felt pretty good after that. We weren’t trying to outdo anything. It was just the joy of being able to go out and buy presents. I already had my gift.”
Watson is back to work at the hospital part time and said she feels stronger. She’s facing another surgery to repair a hernia, the result of the transplant. Her heart, which was stressed by the disease, is doing well, and she said she is improving day by day.
“I am worlds apart from where I was,” she said. “I wasn’t at normal for a long, long time.
I realize just how much I had lost. Right now, I’d say I’m about 60 to 70 percent of my best — but I’m 150 percent better than I was a year ago.”
Physically they are improving, but the surgery has changed both women in a deeper way.
Hubbard, who has been an organ donor, said she has become passionate about organ donation and now works as a volunteer with the organ donation program.
“I have to be able to share with people, to talk with them and help them in this way,” she said. “I’ve seen the need. Some people will never leave the hospital without help.They will leave in a hearse or with a new liver.”
She stressed that just one person can save 16 lives by being an organ donor.
“We can all be a donor,” she said. “Whatever we work for — world peace, saving the planet. If we had to do something: Be a donor. That was the gift for me.”
Hubbard said she does not think about the fact that a part of her is now inside someone else.
“I can’t think of it that way. I don’t want her to feel obligated to me,” she said. “It’s [the liver] changed; it’s grown. It’s not mine any more. It’s hers.”
Watson, however, who also is an organ donor, often thinks about the fact that there was someone willing to donate a part of themselves for her.
“I’ve got an energy inside me, a vitality. And it does make a difference,” she said. “I look at my extended family, and all the support I’ve gotten, and I know I am probably one of the most blessed people because my donor is full of life. And that transfers to me.”
She said she does not know how long she would have survived without the operation, but said she knows the transplant has given her a new life and a new appreciation for life.
“I’m peaceful and happy and really OK with things. I understand that every year, every day is a gift. And if something happened to me and I died tomorrow, I know I got a whole other year of life — that much more time with my family and friends. And that’s an incredible thing.”