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Even in the best of times, it sometimes can take a while for a sick person to get on the wait list for an organ transplant.
In early 2020, Joe Murray needed a new liver, and he was just one test short of landing a spot on the wait list at his hospital in New England when the world shut down due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. He never could have dreamed he eventually would receive the gift of life more than 1,000 miles away in Madison, Wisconsin.
Joe learned he suffered from liver disease in summer 2019. While doctors tried various medications to treat his condition, it soon became clear that a transplant was his only option. As time went on, he began experiencing cognitive decline, a low energy level and debilitating cramps at night. Even if he had been able to get on the wait list for a liver transplant, he knew he likely would wait a long time at his hospital in New England.
But serendipity turned his situation around. His wife, Janet, was talking to a friend whose brother needed a transplant several years ago. The brother grew up with David Foley, MD, a transplant surgeon at the UW Health Liver Transplant Program. The friend connected Joe and Janet with her brother, who in turn put them in touch with Dr. Foley. By then, it was the end of May, and UW Health had started running tests for transplant patients again. Dr. Foley suggested that Joe travel to Wisconsin to be assessed for transplant there. “This is where our love affair with UW Health began,” says Joe.
The Murrays came to Madison right after Memorial Day and were able to get on the wait list. Caregivers at UW Health suggested they remain in Wisconsin to wait for a new liver, because Joe’s health had deteriorated. They stayed in a couple of hotels, then found an apartment in Middleton, Wisconsin, where they settled in to wait. On July 8, Joe received a call at 3 in the morning that a liver had become available, and they headed to the hospital to accept his long-awaited gift.
Joe, Janet and their 15-year-old daughter Katie (they have two other children who are in their 20s) stayed in Madison all summer. Katie began her sophomore year of high school attending classes remotely from Wisconsin, and Joe and Janet established friendships with other residents of their apartment building, including a UW Health nurse. “Neither of us had ever lived in the Midwest,” says Joe. “We both loved it there. When it was time for us to leave in October, it was very hard for us because such an amazing thing had happened in Wisconsin.”
The Murray family returned home on October 16 and were greeted by a socially distanced group of friends and neighbors in their driveway. Since then, Joe has continued with his medical care closer to home, but he still keeps in close contact with many of the caregivers with whom he connected while in Madison. “I felt like the luckiest person on the planet even before I received the transplant,” he says. “My care at UW Health was outstanding. You put your life in the hands of people who are strangers at first, but you end up depending on them just as you would depend on the closest of family members.”