The people of Western New York are known for their generosity and willingness to give to help others. One priest has a need that may be a tall order. Father John Mack needs a liver from a living donor. The 65-year-old priest has just been put on the transplant waiting list through Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.
Father Mack suffers from nonalcoholic steatohepatitis which has led to cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver.
"I've lived with this for about five years," he explained. "The last year or so, I've become more symptomatic. In October of this year, I underwent a two-day evaluation regarding transplantation at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester."
Still rare in the United States, a living donor transplant takes one lobe of a liver from a healthy donor and places it in place of the damaged organ in the recipient. The liver is the only human organ that can regenerate itself, so both donor and recipient go on to live full lives. A living donation greatly cuts down on the wait time for transplant allowing a better chance for full recovery.
Father Mack, who has no siblings or close relatives within the proper age range, is looking for an altruistic donor who is willing to put their life on hold for an eight-week recovery period to help him live.
Father Mack's first diagnosis came in the fall of 2014 after he began to bleed internally. "I found out the hard way that I had (cirrhosis) because I had an enormous internal bleeding incident," he explained. "After that was stopped, they did a biopsy and determined that my liver was cirrhotic. That meant it was still functioning, but it was scarred and the sacring was not going to repair itself. I've lived with this for a while, but I've been in and out of the hospital several times in the last year and a half. And many different doctors through many different disciplines suggest that I eventually get my way to Strong Memorial Hospital."
Strong Memorial Hospital, a division of the University of Rochester Medicine, is the only living donor liver transplant center in upstate New York. Living donor transplants usually shorten the length of time that a recipient has to wait for a transplant.
The liver is vital to the body's metabolic, detoxification and immune systems. The organ, which can weigh 3 pounds, filters the blood and processes nutrients. If it is not functioning properly, blood will not be processed properly through the body. Veins in the esophagus may enlarge due to improper blood flow and cause bleeding. Father Mack gets upper endoscopies locally to see if they are bleeding.
"The big thing is what is called ascites is the retaining of fluid in the abdomen," he said. "That's also another sign that there could be some degree of liver failure or liver disease."
Ascites usually comes when liver disease becomes severe. It's caused by pressure building up in the veins of the liver. The pressure blocks the flow of blood in the liver, which keeps the kidneys from removing excess salt from your body. This causes the fluid to build up. This can be taken care of with diuretics in the form of pills, and paracentesis which is the removal through a needle. Other problems include enlargement of the spleen, which prevents platelets from being pushed out into the blood. In severe people become jaundice and get a yellow tone to their skin. Not everyone gets these symptoms, and some people get them much worse than others.
The doctors of Strong Memorial have helped Father Mack since he took a turn for the worst August 2018. He was on a steady decline until Christmas of that year. Since then, he has lost 75 pounds of fluid and muscle mass. He has been on the mend for a year now.
"I've recovered, and even now am able to fully function," he said. "I teach (at Christ the King Seminary). I preside at Mass. I do all the responsibilities that I can. I just have to be aware of my symptoms."
Dr. Roberto Hernandez Alejandro, chief of transplant at the University of Rochester, said the U.S. organ donation rate is "not bad" compared to other countries, but there are still thousands of people on waiting list.
"The problem is we have too many patients on the waiting list and we don't have enough organs for them. So, a lot of patients are waiting and waiting, they get too sick and they don't reach that opportunity of receiving and organ transplant," Hernandez explained.
Live liver donations started in Japan. They are still rare in the U.S. with 500 taking place each year. Living donation require a live donor, who is in good health, and between the ages of 18 and 60. Doctors look for donors without a history of heart disease, diabetes or excessive alcohol use.
Hernandez said Father Mack is in the best zone for a transplant right now.
"The sooner the better. Cirrhosis and liver disease, the vast majority of times is a progressive disease. Fear is that the liver will start failing more. Could affect the outcome or recovery could be longer," he said. "I would like to see him with a new liver within a year or less - way less than that."
With no siblings and no close relatives within the preferred age range, Father Mack is relying on a group of "champions" to get the word out that he is looking for a living donor. Interested donors for Father Mack need to have type A or O blood. He is A positive. Donors also need to be between 18 and 55, have a healthy BMI of no more that 30, with no significant medical or psychiatric problems.
Father Mack has served the Diocese of Buffalo for 34 years as teacher, pastor and professor. He is also a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, serving as a chaplain in the United States Air Force Reserve and the New York Air National Guard from 1981 until 2009.
During his military service, he was deployed to Colombia; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Jacobabad, Pakistan; and Qatar.
For more information on Father Mack or to help, visit www.LiverForMack.com.
Or to learn more about living donation, visit www.urmc.rochester.edu/transplant/liver.