Life, Death, and Generosity

A week ago last Friday, at 9:00 a.m., I cried and prayed for the family whose devastating sorrow would mean a new lease on life for my brother-in-law, Dan.

I wrote about Dan, my sister, Cheryl, and their four children in a blog post back in January. Last year, Dan was diagnosed with the rare autoimmune liver disorder primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). The only true treatment for this chronic illness is liver transplantation. Unfortunately, many sufferers develop cancer in the liver—and active cancer means no transplant.

Last August, shortly after he was diagnosed with PSC, Dan was diagnosed with Stage 3 liver cancer. Since it hadn’t spread, the doctors felt they might be able to contain it, keep it from spreading, and remove it when transplanting a new liver if one became available. So they treated the cancer very aggressively, with chemotherapy and radiation, including a rare and risky internal radiation procedure, and multiple surgeries to keep his liver operational. They were able to keep the cancer from spreading, so they placed him on the list for a liver transplant and worked hard to keep this very sick man as healthy and strong as possible while he waited.

Two weeks ago, Dan was admitted to the hospital to receive treatment for complications of ongoing maintenance chemotherapy. He was continuing to take chemo drugs to discourage any growth of the cancerous tumor on his liver, to increase the chances that he could receive a new liver if a matching one became available.

Because Dan was so desperately sick when he entered the hospital, the transplant doctors were able to move him up on the transplant list. After four days in the hospital, at 3:00 in the morning, my sister received a call telling her that a matching liver would become available later that day. So she and Dan prepared themselves for the risky surgery they had spent months hoping for—the only option to save his life.

When Cheryl called in the early hours of the morning to tell us the news and ask us to pray, she told us that apparently the liver would be coming from someone who was scheduled to be taken off life support that morning at 9:00. The location and identity of the donor were (and still are) completely confidential, but we knew for sure that someone’s death, and a family’s grief, would produce this new chance for Dan.

What a world we live in! Scientific and medical advances give us breathtaking capabilities. They also bring us previously unimaginable ethical dilemmas on a regular basis. As a species, we now have the capability to prolong life—possibly indefinitely—for a body whose brain has long since stopped functioning. We can stop life moments after it begins, tearing our most vulnerable from the safety of the womb. We can save human eggs and use them later; we can fertilize them in laboratories only to destroy them soon after. We can ease suffering more effectively than ever, repair defects so they are undetectable, replace limbs with marvelous prosthetics, and casually inoculate against diseases that terrorized our ancestors. And as we exit this life, we can participate in a beautiful picture of the kind of redemptive work God does all the time. We can bring new life out of death. Our tragedies can save others.

Oddly, given the rarity of PSC, two unrelated members of my family have suffered from this disease. Eight years ago, my father-in-law told us he had developed this rare liver disorder and eventually he would need a new liver. After two years of medical intervention and waiting for a liver donation that never came, our brother-in-law, Bryan, volunteered to donate a portion of his liver. Because the liver regenerates, in some cases it is possible to do such a “live donation,” with both the recipient and the donor eventually restored to health with fully functioning livers. Although Bryan experienced rare and life-threatening complications from the procedure, the transplant was a success and both men made it through. However, in his weakened condition, my father-in-law was unable to fight a serious infection he contracted in the hospital, and he died exactly six years (to the day) before Dan’s first day with his new liver.

My father-in-law left behind three adult children, two children-in-law, five grandchildren, an ex-wife, a wife, and three young stepchildren. He was missed at his son’s wedding a few months later, where we mourned him with a few tearful moments of silence. He never met the three additional grandchildren who have joined the family since his death. If a liver had been available to him while he was waiting, while his body was stronger, perhaps he would still be here. He may have lived for many more years, building into the lives of the children and grandchildren who love him.

Most of us take liver function for granted. But after seeing what these loved ones have gone through, I can tell you it’s amazing and precious and there is no substitute. The day after receiving his new liver, Dan was already a new man. And ten days after his life-saving surgery, he’s recovering well. He’s home from the hospital, enjoying a strong appetite, and enjoying the renewed hope that he can get better—not worse—with each new day. Last night, he watched a movie—and truly enjoyed it—with his four kids. Even in this early and critical stage of healing and adapting to an organ that recently joined his body, he is able to build into his family’s life in a way he hasn’t been able to for the better part of a year.

If you’re not an organ donor, please consider expressing your willingness to give the gift of life to someone else. It’s easy to check that box at the DMV. And it’s important to tell your own loved ones that you want to make this kind of gift when you leave this life. According to Donate Life, every day an average of 18 people in the United States die because they need donated organs that are not available. Despite the ease of registration through the driver’s license renewal process, only 38 percent of licensed drivers in the U.S. are registered as organ donors. Many people who aren’t organ donors have misunderstandings about what organ donation means. If you have misgivings about organ donation, please seek accurate information and consider changing your mind. You can easily register for organ donation here.

Following the example of Christ, let us be generous people—in life and in death.

  1. Jeanette Marcy says:

    Thank you for sharing this message of hope and conviction! I have been praying for your family.

  2. Amy, thank you for sharing this beautifully written story. I was in tears. I am an organ donor!

© 2012 Amy Simpson.