By Katie Scarvey | Salisbury Post | North Carolina
And sometimes, children get a chance to return the favor.
When Sandra Craver was told she could expect to live only six months to two years, her children weren’t willing to have her accept that fate.
Daughter Traci Williams, a registered nurse, began to research options.
And Sandra’s son, Kevin Cauble, stepped up in a pretty dramatic way, volunteering to donate most of his liver so that his mother would increase her odds of living a long, full life.
It hasn’t been easy.
Three years ago, Sandra began having problems with cirrhosis of the liver (which is not the kind associated with alcohol abuse). Her mother had died of liver disease, and Sandra knew that her genetics put her at risk.
Her health began to deteriorate.
After her hematologist changed her medication, Sandra says she gained 22 pounds of fluid in 8 days because her liver was not functioning properly.
Hospitalized for five weeks, she quit her job and went on disability.
Her doctors in Charlotte were not optimistic. They told her she did not qualify to be put on a transplant list because of her history with breast cancer — she is a five-year survivor — and because they felt her heart was not strong enough.
Her children, Traci, Kevin and Christy Gilbeau, were devastated to hear that news.
Thinking that his mother might be able to get a transplant if a family member volunteered to be a live donor, Kevin offered to be an organ donor.
But they learned that even if a family member stepped up, Sandra would still need to be on the transplant list for any transplant to take place. And in any event, Carolinas Medical Center is not equipped to handle live donor transplants, Sandra was told.
Unwilling to stand by and simply watch Sandra deteriorate further, the family began to seek out other options — which led them to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
In July, Sandra began the testing there to determine if she would be a transplant candidate. This time, it was determined that she was, in fact, strong enough to be put on a transplant list.
Then it was Kevin’s turn.
Out of Sandra’s three children, he seemed the likeliest candidate to be the donor. Despite a history of surgeries because of an injury, he was the healthiest, and he was off from his job at Freightliner because he was still recovering from a neck surgery.
Kevin flew to Philadelphia numerous times and ultimately was cleared to be a live donor.
In contrast to living donor kidney transplants, which are about a third of all kidney transplants in this country, living donor liver transplants account for a very small percentage of overall transplants.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were only 249 live donor liver transplants in the whole country in 2010.
Kevin, who is married and has three children, had to undergo psychological testing to make sure that he understood the risks and possible complications of his choice.
His wife, Michelle, also had to give her consent for the transplant.
“They wouldn’t have done it unless I said it was OK,” she said. “I knew he was strong enough.”
On Feb. 8, both Sandra and Kevin were wheeled into surgery. Doctors removed what was left of Sandra’s liver and replaced it with 60 percent of her son’s.
Each was in surgery for close to 9 hours.
Kevin says that although he’s had three different neck and back surgeries after a tree fell on him in 2006, this surgery and its aftermath were tougher than he expected.
“It’s one of the most painful surgeries,” he says, adding that the procedure tends to be harder on the donor than on the recipient.
The liver is an organ that regenerates, and Kevin says that his liver is probably back to normal size by now.
Unfortunately, Kevin is among a minority of live liver donors to have a complication requiring him to have a drain for bile longer than most donors need to. He finally got it removed this week, after 13 weeks of dealing with it.
Kevin says for the most part he feels fine and gets out and does what he wants, although he admits he gets tired and aggravated more easily.
A Desert Storm veteran, he felt well enough to ride his motorcycle to attend the recent memorial service in Kannapolis for Green Beret Donnie Shue.
Sandra has bounced back nicely since the surgery. “She’s doing extraordinarily well,” says Traci, who handled her mother’s financial commitments during the three months that she had to be in Philadelphia, before and after the surgery.
While Sandra was in Philadelphia, an extended absence, Christy took care of her mother’s home.
After the fear that their mother would not survive, the three children were thrilled to have her home in time for Easter.
“She looks and feels so much better,” Christy says.
“I feel great,” Sandra says. “I can move a whole lot better. I’m getting stronger.”
She does tire easily, she says, but she’s hoping that will improve with time.
Before the surgery, her lungs would fill up with fluid, which would then need to be drained.
That’s happened only once since the transplant — an improvement.
Of course her life is a bit more complicated than before. She has to take many medications to prevent her body from rejecting the liver.
And because of the immuno-supressing drugs, she’s had to give up some things she enjoys, like being in the sun (she’s more susceptible to skin cancer now) and working in the garden — since there is bacteria in the dirt that could make her sick, she’s told.
Traci and Christy are grateful to Kevin for putting himself at risk and enduing a painful surgery and recovery for their mother’s benefit.
“I am very thankful to my brother for undergoing a potentially dangerous surgery which has allowed our mom to be around for hopefully years to come,” Traci says.
Sandra says she has found tremendous support from her church family at St. Luke’s Reformed Church. Her pastor, Johnny Boggs, and wife Kathy travelled to Philadelphia to assist her, and church member Rajaa Samter stayed with Sandra in Philadelphia for five weeks after her surgery, helping her to cook, clean and change her bandages.
Through the National Living Donor Assistance Program, Kevin got some financial assistance to help defray some of his travel costs, although it didn’t cover everything.
To help Sandra and Kevin with costs they have incurred related to the surgeries, a benefit is scheduled for May 28 at the Faith Legion, with barbeque provided by Wink’s.
Tickets are $9 and are for pork barbeque or chicken plates with drink.
If you’re interested in buying a ticket, you can call Kevin at 704-433-7854 or email him at email@example.com.