August 20, 2019, began like any other day for Rhonda. Shortly after her husband, Peter, left for work, Rhonda got an unexpected call. It was her transplant coordinator at Temple Health.
“We have a liver for you,” she said.
It was the moment that Rhonda and her family had hoped for, but it took a minute for the life-changing news to sink in.
“I was on a lot of meds and exhausted,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Can you say that again?’ I thought I was dreaming.”
Just 30 minutes later, Rhonda and Peter were on their way from their home in the Poconos to Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. A long day of testing would end in a five-hour surgery to transplant Rhonda’s new liver.
Subtle signs of a growing problem
Rhonda’s road to a liver transplant began in 2018.
“I was drinking too much, to be honest,” she says. “My mom was becoming very ill, and I’d lost my father. We have a small business, and that can be stressful, and so my normal glass of wine became earlier in the day, and that got out of hand.”
Rhonda experienced bloating, and her back hurt. On top of losing her mother, Rhonda’s regular physician had retired and there was a six-month wait to see her new doctor. Even though she’d always been one to seek medical care, this time, Rhonda just used aspirin to treat her symptoms.
By May 2018, though Rhonda was never hungry, she was gaining weight. She was also deeply exhausted all the time, and she’d been experiencing constipation. Despite her symptoms, Rhonda and Peter traveled to New York City to see their son graduate from New York University.
When they arrived home, Rhonda’s son realized something was wrong with her behavior: she couldn’t remember what day it was or who was president. Her family rushed her to the hospital in Bethlehem.
Finding answers and taking steps
Rhonda hadn’t known it, but her symptoms were caused by liver disease. The liver plays a crucial role in processing nutrients and removing toxins from the bloodstream. When it’s damaged, a dangerous gas can build up in your system, which is what caused her confusion.
“I remember asking a nurse very innocently, ‘What happens with liver disease?’ ” Rhonda says. “In so many words, she explained that it would cause me to die. It was a reality check.”
Rhonda’s care team informed her that she needed to stop drinking. She didn’t consider herself to be a person with alcohol use disorder. She stopped using alcohol, and she never looked back.
But Rhonda’s liver was already damaged. A team of doctors, including her internist, a nephrologist and a gastroenterologist from Temple Health, all determined that Rhonda needed a liver transplant.
Rhonda turned to the specialists at Temple’s Liver Transplant Program. She and Peter traveled to Philadelphia to meet with a multidisciplinary care team, where her transplant nurse coordinator scheduled multiple tests and consultations with experts at the hospital.
Unfortunately, Rhonda’s test results and symptoms proved that she needed a full liver transplant. Her case was forwarded to the transplant team for approval, and in November 2018, Rhonda was placed on the transplant list.
Life on the transplant list
“Then the wait begins,” Rhonda says. “Now, you are rapidly going downhill. My liver was failing. I became really bloated and it just kept getting worse. I looked like I was carrying twins.”
Rhonda was barely well enough to do much of anything, but she had to undergo lab work twice each week. Fortunately, experts from Temple consistently travel to Saint Luke’s University Hospital — Bethlehem to see transplant patients, so Rhonda didn’t have to go all the way to Philadelphia for the needed tests.
Otherwise, Rhonda stayed home — and rode a rollercoaster of serious, changing symptoms. After the bloating, she lost weight with shocking speed. At one point, she lost 15 pounds in 16 days.
On one of Rhonda’s weekly appointments in Bethlehem, Dr. Antonio Di Carlo, Chief of Abdominal Organ Transplant Surgery at Temple, told Rhonda that, without a new liver, she likely had less than a year to live.
“He tried to soften the blow, but I appreciated the honesty,” Rhonda says. “We were in the depths of despair, but for some reason, you manage to rally. I told myself, ‘I’m not going to allow this to happen. I’m going to fight this and not just succumb. I’ll get a liver.’ I don’t know how I knew that, but I just felt that I would.”
Rhonda was never without her phone, poised to get that call about her new liver, a call that finally came on that Tuesday morning in August 2019.
Loving life after a liver transplant
Rhonda received her liver transplant a month before her 59th birthday. Now, she’s 62 and doing great — although there were some hiccups along the way. The donor liver was larger than her own organ, so she needed two follow-up procedures.
“Things happen,” Rhonda says. “Honestly, I did really well and was very lucky.”