By the time Brian Martin got his liver transplant he had lost so much muscle mass that he could barely walk, fell often, and got so easily worn out that taking a shower caused him to take to his bed.
“The last year was really rough,” says Martin, 47, of his wait for a match to replace his genetically diseased liver.
The fluid build-up of toxins that swelled his belly became more frequent, causing overnight weight gains of up to 12 pounds, and he came to rely on frequent check-ins with his pastor, University of Cincinnati doctor and nurse to renew his faith that a breakthrough would come.
When it did come, on his late mother’s birthday, the transplant took 14 hours—four of which were spent removing the toxins and bacteria his liver had lost the ability to remove.
Nationally, there are 17,000 people waiting for liver transplants, with about 7,000 taking place per year, says Dr. Shimul Shah, who treated Martin as the director of liver transplants and associate professor of surgery at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
At UC, the number of liver transplants is on pace to reach 110 this year, up from about 36 back in 2012. Martin, now just more than four weeks past his own hospital release, is an ardent supporter of UC’s transplant program who is telling his success story to encourage more organ donorship—and more patients to never lose hope.
“Now I wake up every day and I want to go do things, I’ve got energy—I feel like I’ve been given a second chance at life,” Martin says. “I want to honor God, make sure my [medical] support team knows I’m doing everything I should be doing, and I want to honor the donor’s family for such a great gift—and let them know I won’t squander it.”
Martin’s release from the hospital was quicker than most, perhaps because of his age and health, says Shah. Martin only realized he had liver disease two years ago, when a hernia operation revealed the illness.
But this transplant carries the highest risk of dying of all operations, so a risk-benefit analysis is key when considering candidacy for liver transplants, says Shah. In this operation, there is a 5 percent risk of dying, whereas heart bypass and brain surgery carry a 1 percent or less risk of dying, he says.
“This is not like getting a knee done.”
Considering the major upheaval this surgery causes, and its 40 percent hospital readmittance rate post-surgery, Shah and UC have experimented with better ways of administering care, employing the use of technology to monitor patients remotely and keeping closer tabs on them between doctor visits.
A new study at UC, which started Nov. 1, is tracking 150 transplant patients, with half receiving the traditional standard of care, and half using tools like tablets and Bluetooth technology to measure and report their vital signs, sending screenshots to medical staff. Traditional care patients will have blood pressure cuffs and other means to measure and report their vitals on paper.
The study will show the impact of technology on patients’ recuperation, quality of life and other commonly related issues like depression. Ultimately, it is meant to combat what’s known in the medical field as “high-tech surgery/low-tech care,” he adds.
Liver disease can be caused by heredity, as in Martin’s case, Hepatitis C, alcohol abuse and, in rising incidence, fatty liver, Shah says, adding this is becoming a common cause of liver disease. Fatty liver disease is often seen in combination with obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, he adds.
There is no way to reverse cirrhosis, or liver scarring. Symptoms include fatigue, confusion, blackout spells and swelling. Blood tests and liver panels are some ways to detect liver problems.