Although they’d already been sharing their hearts with each other for a decade, Brendalee Morgan and Mickey Wojnarowski of Nakusp have also been sharing a liver – the “Morgan organ” – for nearly two years now.
A rare condition know as Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) caused scarring in Mickey’s bile ducts. After a while, the bile began to eat the fat in the liver, which caused cirrhosis.
“I came pretty close to having liver failure,” said Mickey. Being in line for a liver donation didn’t help, unfortunately, with no livers coming available during the five months he waited on the list.
“Lots of people don’t know about transplants, that they have to register to donate,” said Mickey.
With the situation starting to look dire, Mickey and Brendalee began learning more about live donation.
“It’s a last resort,” Mickey told The Arrow Lakes News. “They don’t want to put someone else at risk.”
When they went through testing, they found they were truly a match, right down to the tissues. Although it was clearly a good option, both Brendalee and Mickey went through a long screening process that involved more than just the physical.
“I was told I don’t have to do this,” said Brendalee.
“It’s pretty much the same surgery for both of us,” explained Mickey, “a long recovery, and a lot of pain.”
Both were counselled and helped to make their wills in preparation for the possibility of dying during or after the serious surgery that would put part of Brendalee’s liver into Mickey’s body. On July 11, 2009, the transplant took place.
“I could feel everything,” said Brendalee about the post-op period where the anaesthetic seemed to wear off too soon.
The pain, as bad as it was, was preferable to the drugs, which induced consuming hallucinations and frightening nightmares.
“The fourth day, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it,” said Brendalee, “but the next day I sat up. From then on, I knew I was going to make it.” Her healing was aided by a long-time friend coming to watch the Symphony of Fire with her, and bringing the music to accompany the fireworks.
If the transplant had a theme song, it was Somewhere Over the Rainbow: “that song kept playing throughout the post-op experience,” said Brendalee. Both Mickey, who had been in a production of The Wizard of Oz, and she were connected to the song which became like a mantra that let her know everything was going to be ok. The fireworks and friend helped lift her spirits and started her healing.
“And then I threw up all over Val,” said Brendalee, laughing at the memory.
Her recovery after that was rapid, and Brendalee was able to help nurse Mickey back to health. The two spent a lot of time in the hospital, with Mickey enduring seven surgeries in five months. Brendalee became familiar with all the tubes, needles and numbers that came with the medical terrain. Medical staff soon saw she had the caretaking abilities required to look after Mickey, so they sent the couple home.
“I needed to get out of the hospital,” stated Mickey, who had needed five months of physiotherapy in order to simply learn to walk again.
“I didn’t eat for six months,” he said. “For a while I couldn’t even drink water.”
What sounds like a hell of incapacitation to most people Mickey saw as a huge opportunity he was able to make the most of.
“It was truly a gift,” he said, not just talking about Brendalee’s generosity, but the experience of recovery. Having to rely on others forced Mickey to let go of a lot of self-consciousness and appreciate every moment he was alive.
Although he had heard that having the will to live made all the difference, Mickey gained a deep understanding of just what that meant during his time in the hospital.
“If you don’t have willpower, you won’t make it,” he said. At one very low point, Mickey stopped speaking for two weeks, and was on the verge of giving up. It was just at this time that a friend sent pictures from the Farmer’s Market in Nakusp which Brendalee made into a poster with the pictures of all the people who cared about them, their dogs, and beautiful spots from their Kootenay home.
“Miracle after miracle of support came from Nakusp,” said Brendalee, who has felt humbled by the process of learning how to accept so much generosity. It was this support and all the thoughts and good will from the community that helped Mickey come back.
“Every day is a gift,” affirmed Mickey. “Just to be here.”
That hard-won steadfast positivity is what all donors and recipients in the live liver donor program have in common, said the pair. Mickey is now very keen on letting people know about the need for organ donors, and encourages people to visit the donation site: www.transplant.bc.ca.
“It is important for people to understand how important it is to register as a donor,” he said, “Most people don’t really think twice about it, I know I didn’t.”
Started at VGH ten years ago, the live liver program has delivered (no pun intended) 39 surgeries, all of them done by Dr. Eric Yoshida. Although many people are aware that live donation is a possibility for kidneys, live liver transplants are still relatively unknown.
One day, Dr. Yoshida told Brendalee she deserved a medal, and he was going to get her one. And he did. On May 28, all 39 live liver donors were honoured in a ceremony at VGH.
The stories were incredible, Brendalee said. And each donor said the same thing: every day of life is precious. Mickey and Brendalee agree completely.
“Life is just so exciting every day,” said Mickey. “We always knew we were soul mates, and now we share an organ.
We’re so connected I get grumpy once a month,” joked Mickey.
Mickey and Brendalee are now overjoyed to be back in the arms of the community they love and that loves them right back: Nakusp.