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On Sept. 22, 2022, transplant surgeons at UW Health carefully placed a liver from a deceased donor into the abdomen of 62-year-old Tim Knurr.
In so doing, they saved the Mequon man’s life and marked a milestone in the storied history of the UW Health Liver Transplant Program. Tim’s surgery was the 3,000th liver transplanted at UW Health since the program first began in 1984.
“It shows our program has been around a long time with a track record of success,” said David Al-Adra, MD, PhD, FACS, the lead transplant surgeon in the procedure.
A scarred liver
Tim first learned he had liver problems about four years ago and a gastroenterologist diagnosed him with cirrhosis of the liver—a disease in which more and more scar tissue forms on the liver, making it difficult for the liver to function.
Starting in fall 2021, Tim’s health took an alarming dip. He went through several health scares and hospitalizations and in early 2022, his doctor referred him to the UW Health Liver Transplant Program. As he was undergoing the required tests that he needed to qualify for a liver transplant, Tim learned he had heart problems that would need to be corrected before he could have a transplant.
In the meantime, he was in crisis mode. By March 2022 he was suffering from hepatic encephalopathy, a condition that occurs when the brain accumulates toxins that are unable to be cleared by the liver leading to memory lapses and confusion. The doctors at his home hospital, Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital Ozaukee in Mequon, Wisconsin, sent him by ambulance at 2 a.m. to UW Health University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I was dying,” Tim said. “My local doctors said that I needed a liver transplant right now. The doctors at UW Health said, ‘We know that, but he has these heart problems that make it impossible for us to do a transplant.’”
So, Tim was faced with a problem: He couldn’t have a liver transplant until he had three stents placed in his heart, and he couldn’t undergo heart surgery because his doctors feared he wasn’t well enough.
“When we evaluate a patient for a liver transplant, we want to make sure they will have a good life expectancy,” said Adnan Said, MD, Tim’s Transplant Hepatologist at UW Health. “He had blockages in his heart vessels that would have put him at high risk during and after his transplant surgery. If we installed stents in his heart, we would need to make sure the stents were working properly. There’s a high risk the stent can clot over in the first six months.”
After much discussion, Tim’s doctors agreed to proceed with the heart procedure and wait the required six months until he could qualify for a liver transplant. “I told them, ‘You go ahead and do the stenting surgery, and I promise I won’t die,’” Tim said.
The road to becoming No. 3,000
Tim subsequently underwent the heart procedure and started the long six-month wait. It was very difficult—by the end, he was visiting his local hospital every week to have the fluid drained out of his stomach. “It was the worst summer of my life,” he said.
In September, Tim’s doctors put him on the wait list for a new liver. He was incredibly sick, with his wife Judy caring for him 24/7. Then, on Sept. 21, he received the call that he had been waiting for: A liver had become available, and he was a good match.
Tim hustled over to Madison for the surgery. It was only after the procedure that he found out he was the 3,000th liver transplant. “I’m very proud to be No. 3,000,” he said. “And they should be proud of themselves. They saved my life.”
He’s still recovering from the surgery, but he can tell immediately that he has a new liver. He no longer has the nausea and fatigue that he had with cirrhosis. His skin isn’t “as yellow as a banana.” He is now able to take short walks around his neighborhood, only a few weeks after surgery.
“I want the world to know that the UW Health transplant team that I worked with is second to none,” Tim said. “UW Health saved my life, and I’ll be forever grateful. I can’t thank them enough.”