In less than a month, two co-workers at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth will be joined forever by an unlikely bond: a liver.
Jan Watson, 46, of Surry, a registered nurse at the hospital, suffers from a rare disease which requires a liver transplant.
Although the process of finding a suitable donor match is usually difficult and time-consuming, Watson had one right in her own backyard. The first and only volunteer to offer a portion of her liver — Deb Hubbard, a co-worker at the hospital — turned out to be a suitable match.
“From Day One, Deb said, ‘I’d like to do this for you,’” Watson said.
“I didn’t mean it, though,” Hubbard said with a broad smile on Monday, and the two women shared a hearty laugh.
But Hubbard did mean it.
After a month of tests, the date for the surgery has been set tentatively for March 16, and the two friends are waiting for the final approval this week from the transplant team at Yale Medical Center in New Haven, Conn. That approval could come as early as today.
Watson, who teaches diabetes education at MCMH, suffers from hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, a hereditary disease that affects the functions of the blood vessels. In her case, the disease pumps too much blood to her heart, sapping it from other areas of her body.
Her symptoms date back 17 years when she had nosebleeds during her first pregnancy. That was followed by shortness of breath, which she attributed to “just being out of shape.”
The symptoms worsened over the years, and the shortness of breath accompanied by swelling in the legs finally convinced her to seek help.
“I figured it was probably time to do something, to stop being a registered nurse and to figure out these symptoms,” Watson said.
MCMH physician Dr. Sean Maloney initially diagnosed Watson with HHT in spring 2008. The diagnosis was confirmed by Yale Medical Center in July of that year.
For a while, Watson said, doctors used medication to manage her symptoms, which have included heart failure and stomach pain from digestive problems, which recently required the insertion of a feeding tube.
Last fall, her doctors gave her the word that there was no other option: She needed a liver transplant.
“I don’t think the reality of that has really hit yet,” she said.
From the beginning, Hubbard, who is the information systems Help Desk coordinator at the hospital, was willing to help.
“‘Just let me know what you need,’ she said,” Watson said.
“I never thought it was going to happen,” Hubbard said. “The odds of me being a match were a million to one. I wish the lottery would work this way.”
But when it came down to it, Hubbard said, there was no question about whether she would go through with it.
“I’ve been a volunteer with the Cherryfield Ambulance, I’ve donated blood and I’m on the bone marrow list, and ever since my father died, I knew that I would be an organ donor,” she said. “It was an easy choice. I don’t think I’ve second-guessed it.”
Watson has done that for her.
“Anytime there was a difficulty mentioned, I immediately brought it to her attention,” she said. “I didn’t want her to take it lightly. It is a big deal.”
Watson found it difficult to talk about the gift that her friend and co-worker is giving to her.
“There are no words to express the love and gratitude I feel for someone like Deb,” Watson said. “She is very selfless, very humble. There are a lot more people she has given nonliterally a piece of herself. I’m just the lucky one to let the world see it in a visible form. I don’t know where I’d be without her.”
The transplant team at Yale Medical Center also considers the situation a big deal, and they have put both donor and recipient through a battery of medical, psychological, social and other types of tests to ensure they’re physically, mentally and emotionally prepared.
The toughest moment for Hubbard came when physicians told her she would not be able to run for the rest of the year.
Hubbard is physically fit. She occasionally bikes into work in Ellsworth from her home in Cherryfield and for the past eight years has run the Mount Desert Island Marathon.
“I thought, ‘This is it, she’s going to say no,’” Watson said.
Hubbard was concerned that she would break her string of marathons.
“If you run the marathon 10 years in a row, you get your membership free for the rest of your life,” she said.
The marathon is held in October, and that would be much too soon after the surgery for her to run. But race officials and doctors have said it will be safe for her to walk the course. That will keep her string of marathons intact.
The surgery is long and complicated. Surgeons will remove 60 percent of Hubbard’s liver and all of Watson’s. Both portions of the liver will regenerate to form two complete, functioning livers. Watson’s surgery is expected to last about 11 hours, Hubbard’s about 14 hours.
Hubbard’s recovery will take about four to eight weeks, while Watson will have to remain in Connecticut for at least three months, the time it will take the liver to regenerate.
Watson, who worked regularly until January, said the support from people at the hospital has been tremendous, especially during the periods of waiting.
“I’ve been on kind of a roller coaster,” Watson said. “I don’t like not being in control. … But everyone has been great. There is always someone checking to make sure I don’t overdo it.”
Likewise, Hubbard said, the hospital has made sure that she was free to do what was needed to make the trips to Connecticut for tests whenever they were needed.
“Everyone here has stepped up to the plate, “ she said.
Still, it has been an emotional time for the two women, both of whom have families supporting them and their decisions.
Still, there are emotional ups and downs.
“There have been some lows and highs,” Hubbard said. “I don’t always know where it’s coming from, but I know it has to be connected with this. I’m not usually like that, but sometimes I feel down and I need to call Jan and talk to her. And I know I can tell her I’m feeling down.
“I’ll be relieved as soon as we get the final say,” she said. “They only evaluate one donor at a time, and I’m still afraid that they could still say no, and then Jan would have to start this all over again.”
Watson is torn between the excitement of seeing an end to waiting and dealing with the detailed logistics of preparing for the aftermath of the surgery, finding a place to stay where her husband and four children can visit, working on two budgets for her in Connecticut and her family in Surry, and transportation.
But she too is relieved that they are getting closer to the final decision and eventually the surgery.
“I’m thinking that in almost no time, I’ll be overall feeling better,” she said. “Just knowing that this summer, I’ll be able to eat again, normally. That’s an exciting concept.”
ELLSWORTH, Maine — Jan Watson and Deb Hubbard are covered by health insurance through their employer, Maine Coast Memorial Hospital, which will cover much of the medical expense for Watson’s liver transplant. But there will be additional costs, including co-pay expenses, housing and travel.
The National Transplant Assistance Fund has an account designated for Watson’s care to cover the co-pay expenses and housing. Donations may be made online by going to www.ntafund.org, clicking on “find a patient link” and entering Watson’s name.
An account also has been set up for Watson at Bar Harbor Bank and Trust in Ellsworth, 667-7194.