Thursday, May 28, 2009

Getting a second chance

Diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, Joseph George was told he had two months to live. But a timely liver transplant has enabled him to come back from the brink of death

Photo: Joseph and Lucy George

By Shevlin Sebastian

In early 2004 Joseph George went for a routine check-up. In the blood test, the nurse said she spotted a yellowish colour. “The moment I heard this I knew it must be cirrhosis of the liver since I was drinking so much,” says Joseph.

A doctor in Kochi confirmed the diagnosis and said it was irreversible. Joseph refused to accept the conclusion and went to St. John’s hospital in Bangalore. Unfortunately, the doctors there reconfirmed the grim findings and said he had only two months to live.

Joseph was only 61. Cirrhosis was incurable. The only option was a liver transplant.

A desperate Joseph flew to Texas where his son, Abraham, was working in the IT industry. However, in America it was difficult to get a liver since there was a long waiting list. So he flew to Britain, but drew a blank there.

Abraham did research on the Internet and discovered that livers could be procured in Malaysia. Apparently prisoners on death row from China were taken to Malaysia and killed, and their vital organs were taken out and sold.

“It seemed like a shady operation,” says Joseph.

Eventually, he opted for the Apollo Hospital in Delhi and traveled to the capital in November, 2004.

There he had to undergo various tests to prepare him for the transplant. The costs were staggering. One injection to combat urinary infection cost Rs 5000. “I had to take 15 of them,” he says. The surgeon’s fee was a steep Rs 10 lakh.

By the middle of December he was ready for the transplant, but no liver was available. The doctors told him to wait.

Joseph befriended an Iranian who had been staying for six months in the hospital waiting for a liver. Joseph wondered whether he would have to remain that long.

On January 4, 2005, a young man had a motorbike accident in Delhi and was brought to the Apollo Hospital. Within hours, he was declared brain-dead. When the doctors approached the parents for a liver transplant they agreed.

Dr. Theresa George, Joseph’s sister, who had come from Canada to look after him, also spoke with them.

“The donor’s parents were educated and cultured Punjabis,” says Theresa. “Despite the shock of losing their son so suddenly they were able to take the decision of donating the liver.”

The transplant was done and it was a success. “There were numerous tubes sticking out of my body taking out all the fluids,” says Joseph. After 25 days of closely monitoring his progress, Joseph was allowed to stay in a sterile house near the hospital, as minor treatment continued.

It was only in February that he was allowed to return to Kochi.

Back home, Joseph felt weak for several months. But slowly and steadily he began to regain his health.

Throughout the treatment, Joseph’s mind was also on his wife Lucy who had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma and had begun chemotherapy. The two sons, Abraham and Varkey, and a daughter, Mia, went through a harrowing time.

However, thankfully, it all ended well. Lucy was cured in 2005, but the cancer returned in 2009. Thanks to chemotherapy, Lucy has again become cancer-free, but in the process has temporarily lost all her hair. Joseph has to regularly take immunosuppressant drugs, but, otherwise, is leading a normal life.

As a result of both of them being sick, Joseph, a businessman, took a financial blow. He had to sell a house in Coimbatore and an apartment in Kochi to pay the bills.

Joseph, of course, has no one else to blame, but himself for his cirrhosis. For more than three decades he was a heavy drinker and smoker.

“Just before I had cirrhosis, I was smoking 60 cigarettes and drinking several pegs of whisky a day,” he says. “I have no regrets, because I enjoyed doing it.”

Lucy stares silently at Joseph at their Kairali apartment in Panampilly Nagar, Kochi, when he says this.

Asked how he has changed, post-operation, she says, “Since he is not drinking, he is a different man. When he had cirrhosis it made him irrational, irresponsible, angry, almost like a mad man.”

Joseph says he has matured as a person. “I have realised that running after money is a foolish thing. You can die at any moment.”

Cirrhosis of the liver

Cirrhosis is caused by heavy alcohol consumption, chronic hepatitis C and even obesity.

The average survival time for a person, following liver failure, is two years.

Cirrhosis is an incurable disease. Liver transplant is the only solution. If a patient survives the first year after a transplant, there is a good chance he will have normal life expectancy.

Monthly expenses on medicines is around Rs 12,000 following a transplant

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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