How David found hope through a liver transplant after alcohol use disorder
David Hutchison has been a Blue Bell delivery driver for over two decades. He’s in his early 40s, and his son and wife work in the ice cream business, too. While he often enjoyed having some drinks after work or on the weekends, he didn’t think much about how alcohol could affect his health.
“Life was good, and my job was great, but then my drinking started to take over a bit,” David said. “After work, I would drink, and over time, it got to where I drank more.”
David was diagnosed with cirrhosis—a scarring of the liver that can be caused by alcohol use. He stayed away from drinking for a few months, but familiar behaviors returned. During his relapse, David became very ill.
“I put myself into rehab, but I got sick while I was there and had to go to the hospital,” he said. “That’s when the doctors suggested I might need a liver transplant, but they explained how hard it would be because it was caused by alcohol.”
Specialized care for alcohol-related liver disease
David was referred to the new Alcohol Liver Disease Clinic at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. This multidisciplinary clinic is the first of its kind in North Texas and helps people who are dealing with both liver disease and alcohol abuse.
Using the combined expertise of hepatologists, surgeons, psychologists, social workers and nurses, the clinic offers care for alcohol-associated cirrhosis, treatment for alcohol use disorder and transplant consideration for select patients. Members of the team at the clinic were involved in creating criteria to determine transplant candidacy for people who have alcohol-related liver disease.
“We wanted to make sure we built an appropriate infrastructure so that we can support patients before and after transplant,” said Sumeet Asrani, MD, MSc, chief of hepatology and liver transplantation at Baylor University Medical Center. “We treat not only the liver disease, but also the alcohol use disorder.”
As the first step of the program, David went through an extensive assessment by a hepatologist, an abdominal transplant surgeon and a clinical psychologist. The assessment covered medical issues and lifestyle factors, mental health history and substance use, as well as social factors like education, employment and social support.
“They asked questions about my job, my family, everything about me, and I had friends and co-workers write letters on my behalf,” David said. “They wanted to make sure I was going to have the support to get through recovery and to help me stay sober.”
A committee then used the assessment to decide if David should undergo a complete liver transplant evaluation. In cases like his, some centers require a period of six months of sobriety before being accepted for an evaluation. However, with the support and processes established by the clinic, David was accepted for a transplant evaluation sooner.
“Part of our job is to evaluate patients to make sure they are appropriate for transplant, and this requires a multidisciplinary team approach,” said Suzie Lee, MD, abdominal transplant surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center. “In the transplant evaluation, we make sure their anatomy is appropriate for transplant and that they have adequate social support to recover after transplant surgery.”
Hope through liver transplant
After his evaluation, the transplant committee met and accepted David onto the transplant list for a new liver. Just a few days later, his wife got the call. There was a donor liver available for David.
“It happened a lot faster than we expected, but it was very easy for me to say yes,” he said. “They were telling me early on that without the transplant, they didn’t know if I would make it to Christmas, much less the next year. There was no hesitation because I wanted to live. I knew I could do this.”
David underwent liver transplant surgery and spent about a week recovering in the hospital. He is the second person ever to receive a transplant as part of the Alcohol Liver Disease Clinic.
Following his lifesaving procedure, David got the support he needed to care for his new liver. The clinic offers ongoing post-transplant care and resources, and he continues to attend virtual meetings with others recovering from alcohol use disorder.
“We want to give patients all the tools and support they need to succeed. By assessing their risk for relapse and overall complexity, we can help them connect with an addiction counselor or attend recovery groups, such as AA, NA and Smart Recovery,” said Stephanie Vega-Molina, PhD, clinical psychologist in the program.
Since his surgery, David has celebrated one year of sobriety, and he was able to go back to work. Today, he only needs the minimum anti-rejection medications for his transplant, and his doctors say his progression through recovery has been “phenomenal.”
Looking back on his experience, David is grateful for the chance to be there for his son and wife.
“They’re the reason I did it,” he said. “Without them, I probably would have given up.”
He also feels lucky that his journey through sobriety and transplant has given him the opportunity to offer what he has learned to help others.
“I believe one of the reasons I’m here is to share my story and help others struggling along the way,” he said. “The program took a chance with me, and I want it to succeed because it worked for me.”
In the first 18 months of the Alcohol Liver Disease Clinic, 55 people were evaluated for transplant, and 13 of those, including David, have received a new liver.
David’s wife, Molly, chronicled his disease process and transplant through Facebook posts that she later compiled and shared with the transplant team. Here are a few of the posts and photos from his journey.
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