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Any aspiring doctor will tell you that medical school is a long, difficult journey—even under the best of circumstances.
But for Nathan Baggett, graduating from medical school was almost a herculean feat, given the fact that he was struggling with liver disease and underwent three liver transplants in less than two years. Still, he accomplished his goal and now is serving a residency in emergency medicine in Minnesota—all thanks to the care he received from his doctors and friends at the UW Health Liver Transplant Program in Madison, Wisconsin.
Nathan, 31, first became sick at age 20 with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare liver disease that damages the bile ducts. Despite his medical problems, he graduated from college, worked as a firefighter and paramedic in Ankeny, Iowa, and backpacked around the world. “I tried to take advantage of the good moments,” he says.
In 2013, he and his girlfriend, Ann, moved to Madison so he could attend the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. He transferred his care to the team at UW Health, who treated his infections and performed procedures to open his bile ducts. There is no cure for PSC; most patients eventually need a liver transplant, but Nathan’s caregivers hoped he would be able to finish medical school before reaching that step.
In July 2015, he became much sicker, so his doctors added him to the wait list for a new liver. That summer, he and Ann got married and miraculously, he was able to return to medical school and his specialty rotations in the fall. “All the while, I was turning yellow from jaundice,” he says, “and I lost 20 to 30 pounds. I would go into the hospital at 5 a.m. to rotate with the surgery team. Then, at 4 p.m., I would go to the infusion center for plasma therapy for a few hours, go home, sleep, and then do it all over again the next day.”
During Nathan’s fourth year of medical school, while all his peers were applying for residencies, he and his doctors decided he should try to find a living liver donor. His cousin volunteered, and in March 2017, she gave him the gift of life with a new liver. The plan was that he would undergo the transplant, take a year off to recover and then resume his medical training. But a few days after his surgery, the artery that supplies blood to the liver clotted, damaging his new liver and causing his health to deteriorate rapidly. Meanwhile, his peers chose him to give the commencement speech at his medical school graduation, which he delivered from a chair while some of his UW Health transplant surgeons cheered him on in the audience.
In July 2017, he received his second liver transplant from a deceased donor. He spent that fall applying to surgical residencies, but by spring 2018, he was experiencing problems with his new liver again. “My doctors decided the best thing they could do to save my life was add me to the transplant list again,” he says.
Yet again, his career as a doctor would have to wait.
In September 2018, Nathan received his third transplant. Although he initially had complications with that liver too, miraculously, he pulled through and his liver is now functioning normally. Slowly but surely over the next couple of years, he gained his strength back. “I went from not being able to walk to the corner of the block to going on hikes,” he says.
Hikes aren’t the only joy in his life these days—in February 2021, he and Ann welcomed a baby girl, Lucy. “It’s the gift of life, full circle,” he says. “The three donors who kept me alive made her possible for us.”
And now that his health has stabilized, he feels ready to continue on his journey to become a doctor. “Now I can start to think about returning to things that mattered most to me,” he says. “It’s a little nerve-wracking to think about leaving Madison, because the doctors here have seen me through the hardest times in my life. But I’m excited about what the future holds.”