In Plainfield, 2 residents offer to become donors to help an ailing man on their block
By Michelle Manchir, TRIBUNE REPORTER
Darren Conrad still might be waiting for a liver transplant — waiting to play ice hockey again, waiting to attend his son's baseball games — if he didn't live on Brown Lane in Plainfield.
Neighbors in his subdivision had always assisted with groceries or child care for Conrad's school-aged children while he was consumed by the effects of primary sclerosing cholangitis, the rareliver disease from which football legend Walter Payton suffered.
Last spring, a neighbor offered what Conrad needed most: a healthy liver. And it happened not just once, but twice.
Today, Conrad and his donor neighbors share surgery scars above their belly buttons. They decided to share their story now, during Organ Donor Awareness Month, to get the word out about the procedure.
The residents of Brown Lane, a street with about 30 houses, many with pools and swing sets in the backyards, attribute their intimacy to its largely homogenous makeup. Many are stay-at-home moms, about a dozen of the children are close in age and attend the same school, and at least eight households have been there since the late '90s, said neighbor Dawn Strand.
They've shared Halloween and New Year's parties, memberships to Sam's Club and plenty of dinners out and poker nights. They've also shared crises.
Conrad, 41, whose 6-foot frame shrunk to 120 pounds, stayed in most days in the fall of 2009, unable to eat and bloated.
"If I did go out and do something I would really pay the price for it," Conrad said. "I'd be really tired."
The neighborhood pulled together as Conrad and his wife, Nancy, made frequent trips to Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Neighbors delivered hot dinners, kept the couple's lawn manicured and made sure their 12- and 8-year-old children always had a ride home from school and birthday parties. Nancy Conrad's friend and next-door neighbor, Tracey Vogen, introduced "cookie therapy" to their circle of friends as a way to help Nancy decompress after stressful days — you don't think about anything else if you're decorating a cookie, Vogen said.
Then one day Nancy sent an email to friends and family, soliciting a liver donation.
The situation, she wrote, was this: For someone like Darren Conrad, relatively young and not gravely ill, a living donor was crucial to avoid a yearlong wait for a cadaver liver. His sickness would have to take a critical turn to move him quickly up the list. The fatigue already kept him from work, from playing ball with his kids and from taking part in family holiday celebrations.
Strand and Vogen, both stay-at-home moms who say they empathized with Nancy's situation, talked to their spouses and children about the prospect of donating, and, with support, went to the hospital to be screened.
"I don't want to say I didn't put a lot of thought into it, but it was more figuring how to manage it" rather than whether to do it, Vogen said.
The liver donation process requires donors be at least 18, healthy and to match the blood type of the ill patient, who must be healthy enough to receive a transplant.
Donors also must understand the risks and pass a daylong screening process led by psychiatrists, social workers and surgeons, said Northwestern Memorial Hospital transplant surgeon Talia Baker, who worked with the Conrads.
Surgery that will remove between 25 and 60 percent of the liver carries more than the average risk, says the advisory committee on organ transplantation, a group that advises the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Pain, bleeding, infection and injury to other areas in the abdomen, as well as death, are possible. The risk of having some type of problem, minor or major, from the surgery is 15 to 30 percent.
During the surgery, doctors remove a portion of the donor's liver and place it in the ill person's body. The liver is the only interior organ that regenerates — typically in about three months.
For donors, full recovery from the procedure requires at least six weeks of careful movement, and that's if all goes well.
"It's a huge deal to be totally healthy and have a completely unnecessary operation which carries the risk of death," Baker said. "I am just continually awed by each and every person who comes forward to be a donor."
All was cleared for Vogen to donate in February 2010, but during the surgery doctors discovered a devastating twist: scarring on her liver canceled the transplant. Someone else with a healthy liver needed to step up.
So Strand did. Screening tests were cleared, and last May surgeons put a portion of Strand's liver in Conrad.
"I'm a healthy person, and I felt just very much at peace that it was all going to be OK," Strand said, adding that watching Vogen, her close friend, go through the process strengthened her.
Now, Conrad, a Harley-Davidson dealer, is back at work almost full-time. Last week, he attended the opening day game for his beloved White Sox. He has gained back about 40 pounds.
He still gets blood drawn weekly and visits the Chicago hospital regularly for checkups. He is on drugs that fight rejection of the transplanted organ, but the prognosis is good, Baker said.
Vogen and Strand are exercising and have been healthy and back to normal since last summer. Both went jogging with Nancy Conrad this week.
Darren Conrad gives credit to both women for saving his life.
"They really don't act like it's anything special," Conrad said. "They're just crazy, wonderful, amazing people."