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Transplant survivors discover risks, support during COVID-19 pandemic

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Posted at 3:51 PM, Aug 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-14 18:59:06-04

CINCINNATI — When Debbie Baker, Jeanne Haft and Dale Merz got together recently at Price Hill Chili, the conversation was about livers and living with borrowed time.

People who need organ transplants and even those who have already received them are feeling the impact of COVID-19.

The pandemic halted transplants in the country’s worst hotspots. In the Tri-State, hospitals are full go, but doctors see new risks attacking survivors.

Baker, Haft and Merz are liver transplant survivors.

“They got lucky and met me,” said Baker, a jovial sort who brought them together for mutual support.

"I'm very thankful for the guy who donated my liver,” Baker said with a chuckle. “He was 51 and they tell me he was a comedian, so that's where I got this from. He's my inspiration."

"I got on the list Nov. 13 and was transplanted on her birthday Jan. 21," said Haft.

They’re concerned about the impact of coronavirus on others giving, getting and waiting for organs in the pandemic.

"We still need more donors. We knew of someone who just died," Haft said.

Haft sold homes until suddenly feeling sick and finding out she had stage four cirrhosis– a scarring of the liver.

More than two years later, her recovery involves support from fellow survivors.

"You have somebody to talk to that you can say, ‘Do you feel tired like this? Do you feel stupid like this? Can you remember that?’' Baker said with a laugh. "I mean, it takes two of us to remember something.”

"This a very tough time for patients because they need a lot of support,” said Dr. Cutler Quillin, a liver transplant surgeon at University of Cincinnati Medical Center. “A critical component of getting a transplant is that you have to have the support system in place."

Back in the spring, living organ donations fell behind last year's pace. The number of people not ready for surgery rose, too.

And in places struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus, swamped hospitals stalled procedures to protect transplant patients on medicine that intentionally suppresses immune systems.

Back then, the UC Medical Center paused its kidney program and temporarily scaled back liver transplants. Now full strength and doing more of those surgeries than last year, doctors just did their first living liver transplant in years.

Surgeons have not yet seen organs donated from people who've had COVID-19 and don't know how hospitals will handle it, but they're plenty concerned about new risks facing some survivors - like Merz.

It was 32 years ago and Merz needed a liver.

"My kids were my life. I had to survive," Merz said.

A transplant at UC saved his life, but the medicine keeping him alive is also killing his kidney, and he’s close to needing a second transplant.

So Baker got her pals together for breakfast – a rare risk these days for this group. But it’s reminder of why they’re here at all.

"I feel like we're alive and we have to live,” said Haft.