New Liver, New Life
Dave Lounsbury didn’t know it at first, but he carried a time bomb in his body for almost 30 years, and a few years ago it began to threaten his life. Only a remarkable liver transplant, performed this past June at Westchester Medical Center by its newest surgical star, saved him.
The “bomb” carried by Lounsbury, 54, of Narrowsburg, Sullivan County, was hepatitis C. It was planted back in 1976, when he was serving in the Philippines with the U.S. Navy. On leave in Hong Kong, he got a tattoo. And he thought nothing of it as he left the service, built a mechanical services company dealing with HVAC equipment and married Anne Fisher, now a columnist at CNN money.com.
But in 2003 he developed an internal infection related to a hernia, and that caused his liver to start failing. “They couldn’t find a reason at first,” he says. “I had never been sick before, never been in a hospital.” Testing revealed the hepatitis C, most likely contracted during the tattoo session. The virus had caused cirrhosis in his liver. He managed to control his disease through dietary changes and medication and lived normally until 2009, when his doctor, conducting a normal physical exam, saw a spot on an X-ray of his liver. It was cancer.
“Turns out I was about to be the perfect model of the hep C carrier: infection, cirrhosis, cancer and you’re dead,” Lounsbury says. His only hope was a transplant. He was referred to David Wolf, M.D., Medical Director of Liver Transplantation, who got him on the organ waiting list in December 2010. “We managed his symptoms while he waited,” says Dr. Wolf. “The primary symptom was the accumulation of fluid in his abdominal cavity that needed to be removed about once a month.” Lounsbury struggled to keep his business and his health afloat and kept a bag packed for “the call,” which finally came June 27, 2012. “I was cutting the grass, and they said to get ready,” he remembers. “It was very emotional—I knew this was my chance.”
While being prepped for surgery, he was told his surgeon would be Youmin Wu, M.D., who joined the Medical Center earlier that month. “I had never met him, but one of the nurses lit up like a 150-watt light bulb about him and said he’s the best there is,” says Lounsbury. Dr. Wu, Chief of Intra-Abdominal Transplant and Hepatobiliary Surgery, is an internationally renowned pioneer in organ transplantation. He has done more than 800 liver and kidney transplants and was a member of the four-man surgical team that performed the world’s first multivisceral organ transplant—one in which three or more organs are replaced. He has also developed a new liver-transplant technique called cavaplasty, which can take this often 10- to 14-hour operation and reduce it to five hours, sparing tissue and limiting blood loss.
Dr. Wu, who previously led pacesetting transplant programs at the University of Arkansas and the University of Iowa, once performed a transplant on a 19-day-old infant, the youngest patient ever to receive a transplant of liver tissue from a relative. A big benefit of Dr. Wu’s technique is quicker recovery time. Data show that the average stay in the hospital after surgery is five days with this method, versus 10 to 11 days with traditional surgery.
Lounsbury’s operation was a success, and he recovered so quickly, he says, that he would have left after one day if he’d been allowed to. “I was up on my feet the next day, they took me out of the Intensive Care Unit the second day and on the fifth day they discharged me,” he says. “Dr. Wu is really rocking everyone’s world.” He noticed right away that he felt different. “The first day I realized I didn’t have the ‘hep C haze,’” he says. He describes that as a constant feeling of fatigue and “a weird mental state.”
On his first day with a new liver, he says, “I realized something radical had changed for the better.” He spent several weeks in semiisolation at his mother’s home in Westchester to be close to the hospital for follow-ups and is now back home leading a perfectly normal life. He walks his seven dogs on his rural property, plays pedal steel guitar at a weekly “jam” and hopes to be cleared to ride his motorcycle very soon. Retired from his company, he now teaches HVAC at the Sullivan County BOCES.
“Without my operation, I wouldn’t have survived to see this Christmas,” says Lounsbury. He wants to devote much of his new life to raising awareness of the gift of organ donation. “Transplants are a real blessing,” he says. “I am the luckiest person on the planet.”
ATTENTION, BABY BOOMERS
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2 million U.S. baby boomers—the generation born from 1946 through 1964—have been infected with hepatitis C, and most don’t know it. For that reason, all U.S. baby boomers should get a one-time test for the hepatitis C virus, according to new recommendations published this August by the CDC. Hepatitis C causes serious liver diseases, including liver cancer (the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related deaths) and is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.
HEPATITIS C, BY THE NUMBERS
1 in 30 U.S. baby boomers is infected with hepatitis C. More than 15,000 Americans, most of them baby boomers, die each year from hepatitis C-related illness, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, and deaths have been increasing steadily for more than a decade and are projected to grow significantly in coming years. One-time hepatitis C testing of baby boomers could identify more than 800,000 additional people with hepatitis C. Newly available therapies can cure up to 75 percent of infections. Expanded testing and treatment would save more than 120,000 lives.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Related Read: Sharing Life and a Liver