by Patrick J. Buechi
Mon, Jun 29th 2020 12:00 pm
In January, the Western New York Catholic reported
that Father John Mack, longtime theology professor at Christ the King Seminary, was in need of a live liver donor. Tomorrow, June 30, he receive his new liver from one of his former parishioners.
The 66-year-old priest spoke from his family home in Rochester just a couple of weeks before the surgery. At that time, he was getting his paper work done, moving out of Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, and struggling with a cirrhosis-caused weakness. "I don't have the strength to do anything," he said, explaining that his liver cannot process proteins causing him to lose 15 pounds of muscle just in the past three months.
Live liver transplant surgery is uncommon. Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, where Father Mack is having his surgery, does only a dozen or so of these operations a year. A lobe of liver from a healthy donor is removed and attached to the diseased liver of the recipient. Both lobes will regenerate to close their original size.
Diagnosed in 2014 with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH, which led to cirrhosis, the doctors at Strong Memorial Hospital told Father Mack his best chance for survival would be a live liver donor. The living livers are going to the people with non-alcoholic cirrhosis. Alcoholics have to stop drinking for a period of time until the doctors will even discuss transplant.
"The NASH people, we're the growing number now, because we're usually healthy enough to receive a living liver donation," Father Mack explained. "When I went on the transplant list, they were honest. They said, we want this sooner rather than later. I was approved late October. They said, a year from now, you're not going to be as healthy as you are right now."
In October, Father Mack, who enjoys Facebook, began working with a team of "champions" to get the word out about this need for a liver.
"The Tuesday before Memorial Day I received a call from the living liver donor transplant coordinator, who, when I went on the waiting list said, 'You're never going to hear from me again until you have a donor approved.' So, the coordinator said, 'We have a donor approved and it's about 95 percent.'"
The transplant staff at Strong started setting up the pre-op preparation, saying, "We think this is going to work."
One unique fact about the donor is Father Mack met her in early June. Donors are not always identified to the recipient.
"They're getting more and more what they call altruistic donations in which the donor wants to be absolutely anonymous to the recipient. That's not the case," Father Mack said. It turns out she is a parishioner of St. Andrew's in Kenmore, where Father Mack served as pastor from 2006 to 2008.
Nancy, who asked that we do not reveal her last name, had signed up to donate her organs upon her death. She was scrolling through Facebook just before Christmas when she saw a story on Father Mack's need for a liver. She fit the five listed criteria for being a live donor - right body type, blood type, age and good overall health - but expected to be rejected. She called Strong anyway.
"This is where I believe that prayers for Father Mack had some sort of power of intervention, because I made the call," she said.
Strong asked Nancy to fill out paperwork covering everything from her medication history to her heritage. Then she took part in three days of testing and meetings with doctors, advocates and other team members. She still expected to be rejected.
She followed through for the simple reason that, "The world needs a little more good in it."
"It came to the point that, if you can do the thing and the world need more good especially now, would you do the thing?" she said in explaining her decision. "I couldn't do it five years ago when my kids were younger. I probably can't do it in five years when my mom is older or I might have grandkids and I would be needed in a different capacity."
Although she had spoken briefly to Father Mack back at St. Andrew's when he was pastor, she didn't know that much about him as a person.
"I thought, I want to do this thing now, but what if he's actually a jerk in real life. So, I started secretly stalking him on Facebook," she said. "It turns out he is exactly the kind of person I would want to give a second chance to."
The surgery would have happened a lot earlier, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to elective surgeries. This will be the first post-COVID transplant Strong Memorial has done. In May, when they were allowed to do elective surgeries, they started gearing up. And none too soon either.
Father Mack went into the hospital on Memorial Day weekend very sick. "Everything was off," he said. He received two units of blood and had fluid drained from his abdomen. That's when he received his surgery and recovering schedule.
The recovery will involve several day in ICU, followed by several days in a step down unit at Strong. After surgery, he will be immune supressed. The coronavirus could be deadly to him. So, he will be social distancing and using a mask for the foreseeable future. To avoid COVID-19 from coming into the hospital, visitors will not be permitted.
"Basically, I'm going to face this by myself," he said.
He could be in the hospital anywhere from seven to 14 days. Then he'll return to his home in Rochester, where some friends will keep an eye on him. He cannot be alone in the first two weeks.
After a month, the surgical staples will be removed and he will be weaned off his pain meds. It will take the liver six to eight weeks to regrow, meaning the donor will be out of work for close to three months.
With his role at CKS over, Father Mack will have no assignment during his recovery.
He hopes to return to Immaculate Conception Parish in East Aurora where he has been helping with weekend Masses.
"I haven't said a public Mass since the middle of March. I miss it. I miss the people. I miss the parish. I miss the Eucharist," he said, adding, "Part of my ministry in the future will be as a support, as an information person, and as somebody to accompany those who are going through the some of the same thing I went through. Because there were times when I felt very alone because I don't know anyone else with cirrhosis."