Transplant Saves Life of Vincennes Man
New liver helps former South Knox teacher overcome deadly disease
Hugh Schaefer had the flu. It wasn’t anything too serious. But his wife convinced him to go to the emergency room for IV fluids. While there, doctors did routine bloodwork. What they found was anything but routine.
“They saw some numbers were way up,” said Schaefer, 66, of Vincennes, IN.
Those numbers were the first tip off that Schaefer, like millions of Americans, was suffering from liver disease. Liver disease kills more than 27,000 people in the US each year -- and it almost killed Schaefer, an otherwise healthy retired teacher and coach.
A liver transplant in 2008 returned the former South Knox High School teacher to an active life as one of only two liver transplant recipients in Knox County.
After the abnormal blood test results, Schaefer was referred to a gastrointestinal doctor in Evansville who did further testing.
The day before their 25th wedding anniversary in June 2007, Schaefer and his wife, Glenda, got the diagnosis. Schaefer had non-alcoholic idiopathic cirrhosis of the liver, meaning his liver had suffered irreversible scarring and liver damage with no known cause.
Common causes of liver disease include heavy alcohol use, excessive weight or viral infection. Like about 15 percent of patients, Schaefer had none of these risk factors.
“The doctors haven’t been able to find a cause yet,” Schaefer said.
Regardless of the cause, the kind of liver damage Schaefer suffered from couldn’t be repaired and progressed until he was in liver failure.
At first, he had no symptoms. Then he began to tire easily. He lost his appetite, and started retaining fluid in his abdomen. Occasionally, with no warning, he would have sudden, intense abdominal pain that would stop just as suddenly.
As Schaefer grew sicker, doctors told him that his only hope for survival was a liver transplant. In January 2008, he was referred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis to be evaluated for transplant. Because of the severity of his illness, he was placed near the top of the liver transplant waiting list.
He went back home to wait for a new liver. In February 2008, he was in St. Mary’s Hospital in Evansville, IN, when the call came that a potential donor liver had been located. Schaefer was rushed by ambulance to Barnes-Jewish. Once there, he and Glenda waited, only to find out that the donor liver wasn’t suitable for transplant. They returned home again.
Several weeks later, Schaefer was admitted to St. Mary’s with internal bleeding. Doctors wanted to transfer him to Barnes-Jewish, but determined that his condition was too unstable for him to survive the three- to four-hour ambulance trip.
Doctors told him that if they couldn’t stop the bleeding, he probably wouldn’t live through the day.
“I was scared,” he said. “But I thought, ‘I’m not going to die.’ I don’t know why, but I just didn’t think so.”
The doctors used an endoscope inserted down his throat to cauterize leaking blood vessels and stop the bleeding. By that time, Schaefer had gone through 28 units of blood and was on dialysis to help support his now-failing kidneys.
With the bleeding stopped, he was transferred to Barnes-Jewish. He was at the top of the transplant waiting list, but the other organs in his body had begun to shut down.
Schaefer had arrived at Barnes-Jewish on a Wednesday. Early Friday morning, he and Glenda got word again that a donor liver had been found. Doctors said it was just in the nick of time. Without a new liver, Schaefer had less than 48 hours to live.
But after the previous “dry run” experience, Schaefer didn’t get his hopes up.
“I was just waiting for a no,” he said.
Finally, in the afternoon, he was wheeled into surgery. Liver transplant surgeons Majella Doyle, MD, and Jason Wellen, MD, performed the six-and-one-half-hour operation, removing his scarred liver and replacing it with a healthy donor organ.
Schaefer recovered quickly. He was discharged from Barnes-Jewish to the adjoining Parkway Hotel the Thursday after his transplant. A week after that, he returned to Indiana.
Schaefer credits his doctors and other staff at Barnes-Jewish for not giving up on him when he was at his sickest.
He cites support from friends and former students as helping to buoy his spirits during his ordeal. He received about 500 get-well cards and more than one hundred emails of support throughout his illness.
Other than a bout of organ rejection, which required adjusting his medications, his new liver has functioned beautifully. The transplant medications, however, have caused him to become diabetic – a common side effect. Schaefer said that the discipline that helped him throughout his teaching and coaching career at South Knox High School has helped him manage his diabetes.
He stays in regular touch with his transplant nurse coordinator, Che’ Frost, RN, at Barnes-Jewish, who manages his transplant care and testing, and is always available to answer questions and solve any problems.
“I have never met a finer person than Che’,” he said.
Now that he is once again healthy, Schaefer says he can do pretty much what he wants. He has learned to pace himself though.
“You don’t realize sometimes that you have to take care of yourself,” he said. “I’ve learned to say ‘no’ to things.”
But it one thing he says “yes” to is educating others about organ transplant. He has done some talking in church about the transplant process. He recently recounted his experience to a student who decided to base a research paper on him and his journey to transplant.
And, Schaefer said that he would be glad to share his perspective with anyone who is on the waiting list or thinking about transplant.
For additional information or to begin a transplant evaluation, call 888.202.6668.