Rolla Man Has Liver Transplant at Barnes-Jewish Hospital for Christmas
January 19, 2009, ST. LOUIS - Darrell and Susan Dunn, of Rolla, MO, had a different kind of Christmas this year. It started Dec. 15 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where Darrell, 59, got his gift – a new liver. Darrell had been on the waiting list for a liver transplant for almost three months.
“That was our Christmas,” Susan said. “After all that [surgery and recovery], it was about all we could manage.”
Now, in the new year, Darrell and Susan are giving thanks for the gift of life that Darrell received and are hoping that others think about giving a similar gift.
A great-grandfather and long-time employee of Rolla Municipal Utilities (RMU), Darrell had been suffering for about two years from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a liver disease with no known cause. It causes scarring, or cirrhosis, of the liver and eventually leads to liver failure.
Before his transplant, the disease caused serious symptoms, including bouts of ascites, a condition in which the patient retains excessive amounts of fluid in his abdomen.
“I would tell him that he looked about 14 months pregnant,” Susan said.
He had an increased risk of uncontrolled bleeding and infection. He suffered from nausea and a lack of appetite. At one point, ammonia levels in his body rose dangerously high, causing sluggishness and confusion.
“I knew something was wrong when he put the wrong shoe on the wrong foot and he just stared at it,” Susan said. “One night, he went to bed at about nine o’clock at night and slept through to about five the next afternoon.”
For someone who had lived such an active life, the illness was very stressful, she said.
Before he became ill, Darrell would often come home after working the night shift at UMR, take a short nap and then go to work cutting lawns in town. He would also help Susan, a home childcare provider.
Then, Darrell scraped his leg chopping wood two years ago. When the scrape hadn’t healed and looked red and swollen several days later, Susan urged him to go to the hospital. Blood tests showed that he had non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver.
The Dunns were shocked. Darrell had none of the risk factors for developing liver disease, and had no obvious symptoms. But the illness progressed rapidly. Darrell’s gastroenterologist at Phelps County Medical Center, Ed Bruns, DO, told him that he would eventually need a transplant and referred him to Barnes-Jewish.
Darrell was put on the transplant list in October. Soon after, he received a call that a donor liver may be available. He and Susan drove to St. Louis only to find that the organ was not a good match.
As the weeks wore on, and Darrell became sicker, Susan began to worry that her husband might not get another chance for a transplant.
“I was sure he wouldn’t make it through the year,” she said.
On Dec. 14, as the Dunns were getting ready for bed, the phone rang. Another liver had become available. They again drove to St. Louis, and early the next morning, Darrell received the donor liver.
The Washington University surgeon who performed the transplant, Will Chapman, MD, director of abdominal transplant at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, told Susan that Darrell had gotten a very healthy liver. That soon became obvious.
Darrell was discharged from Barnes-Jewish after four days – a near-record for a liver transplant patient. His energy level rose and his color and appetite returned. After overcoming a few minor complications, Darrell now feels better than he has in a long time.
According to Dr. Chapman, barring any serious complications, Darrell should soon be able to return to his active lifestyle.
Susan said that for now, they are living life one day at a time.
But one of the Dunns’ hopes for the future is to educate people on the success of organ transplant and the desperate need for organ donors. They say they know many people stay on the transplant waiting longer than Darrell, and that others never get a transplant.
“I’d like to let people know it may be their neighbor or uncle or someone in their town who needs a transplant,” Susan said. “You need to think about signing the back of your driver’s license and telling your family you want to be an organ donor.”
Donating the organs of a loved one who has died is a way to bring good out of a sad situation, she said. Some day, the Dunns said, they’d like to find a way to let the family of Darrell’s donor know how precious their gift was to the entire Dunn family.
Susan said she’d also like to encourage other families who have members waiting for transplant not to give up hope.
“That’s the thing I want people to know,” she said. “There is hope. Today may seem like everything’s at its worst, but there is hope. And [once you get the transplant] it’s like black and white.”
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