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Carol Albright is the very picture of good health—physically, mentally and socially. She exercises regularly, her blood pressure and cholesterol numbers are healthy, she doesn’t drink alcohol, and she’s been very involved in her community as a school board member for eight years. She enjoys travel, a good mystery novel, playing with her dog Nutmeg and her garden.
An outsider might envy Carol’s good fortune—except her health has nothing to do with luck. It’s a combination of receiving the gift of life and working hard to be able to receive that gift.
Throughout her life, Carol was overweight and drank alcohol. In 2016, she began experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms including violent vomiting and constipation. Doctors performed a liver biopsy and learned she had a combination of alcoholic cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and fatty liver.
Early in 2017, Carol underwent a trans jugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) procedure, during which doctors created a pathway through her liver by connecting the veins going into and out of her liver. Despite the TIPS procedure, she continued to need to return the hospital for multiple paracentesis procedures in which doctors removed excess fluid from her abdomen.
During her last paracentesis procedure, Carol developed an infection that landed her in the hospital. She was at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, and doctors there felt she needed a liver transplant soon, so they contacted the UW Health Transplant Center, also in Madison. UW Health doctors told them to transfer Carol to their hospital, and she completed a liver transplant evaluation soon after she arrived. After her evaluation was complete, the liver transplant team determined she was a candidate to be placed on the liver transplant wait list.
Within hours, Carol learned a liver had become available. “Afterward, when I was in recovery, I met people who had waited for a liver for years, and I felt guilty that my wait was so short,” she says. “I must have been sick enough to rise to the top of the wait list.”
Carol received her gift of life on Sept. 8, 2017. As she was recovering in the hospital, however, she went into cardiac arrest and doctors put her into a medically induced coma for a week. It turned out she had takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome,” a condition in which the heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened. “It was caused by the overwhelming stress from everything that was going on,” she says.
After about a month Carol returned home under the care of family and friends, who took turns “babysitting” her as she healed. The process was slow, however—she struggled with gastrointestinal symptoms, arthritis pain and weight gain, and she was in and out of the hospital for four months.
While Carol had always been active since she retired from teaching high school Spanish at age 60, she started working with a personal trainer at the end of 2018. That encouraged her to push herself—she was focused on retaining her hard-fought good health. Her most recent trainer challenged her to lose five pounds a month. She met that challenge. “I got inspired because I was finally losing weight,” she says.
Now, Carol is in good shape, she doesn’t touch alcohol and her blood pressure and cholesterol are normal. “I will never dishonor my donor by messing up and not taking care of myself,” she says.