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Liver Transplant Recipient Becomes Life Mentor

Andy Donnelly

In May 2003, Andy Donnelly thought he had a gallbladder problem. His internist agreed, but scheduled a sonogram just to be sure. Andy's gallbladder was fine, but spots on his liver indicated a more serious problem.

Andy had never had any health issues, "not even a cavity," he says. "Then I came up with the weirdest cancer possible." A biopsy confirmed he had epithelioid hemangioendothelioma. This extremely rare type of cancer causes tumors in the linings of the blood vessels of the liver.

Andy's sister recommended a major cancer center in Houston. "And they basically said, 'Good luck.' There was nothing they could do for me. That wasn't real encouraging," he says.

He began showing signs of liver failure. Andy's oncologist referred him to The University of Kansas Health System to see if a liver transplant was an option. Because the cancer was contained in his liver, it was determined Andy would be a good transplant candidate and that a transplant might cure him.

"I don't like to use the word cure necessarily, but it's a heck of a good treatment option, especially when there are no other options offered," he says.

Doctor talking with patient.

Give the gift of life

Today in the United States, there are more people waiting for liver transplants than there are organs available. Help patients like Andy get a new lease on life.

Learn more about organ donation

Andy received his liver transplant in September 2003, after only 12 days on the waiting list. At the time, his liver weighed 16 pounds. Normal human livers weigh about 4 pounds.

"I was the first cancer patient of my type to be treated at the hospital," he says. In fact, Andy may have been among the first of only a handful of people with this particular kind of cancer who are treated by transplant. In 2003, there were approximately 200 reported cases worldwide of this type of cancer, Andy notes.

"It was the rarest of rare cancers," he says. "I had the right kind of cancer. It's a strange thing to say but it's true. I received the best medical care I could possibly dream of. I never could have imagined that I would ever live this long, much less be this healthy, and I have a completely clean bill of health."

"I love being alive," he adds. "I have an enhanced appreciation for life because I've been close to not living. I feel incredibly fortunate, and the fact that I'm as healthy as I can possibly be is just icing on the cake."

I love being alive. I have an enhanced appreciation for life because I've been close to not living. I'm an incredibly fortunate guy. – Andy Donnelly

Liver transplant recipient

Transplant leads to new career

Not only did Andy get a new liver, he found a new career. For about 15 years before his cancer diagnosis, Andy had worked for a liquor distributor. But surviving liver cancer and receiving a transplant gave him a new perspective on life. After he and his wife had a baby, Andy decided to become a stay-at-home-dad. "That's the best gig I've ever had. I have a son at home who wouldn't be here if I hadn't had a transplant."

Andy had also been volunteering for Gift of Life, a Kansas City-based organization that works to educate the community about the critical need for organ and tissue donation. In 2008, Gift of Life hired Andy to manage its Life Mentors program.

Life Mentors are successful organ transplant recipients who pair up with patients facing the same types of transplants. Andy meets with liver transplant patients at The University of Kansas Health System. "I provide hope and encouragement at a difficult time because most people don't know what to expect with a liver transplant, or any kind of transplant," he explains.

Andy feels very fortunate to be involved with Life Mentors. "It's one of the few opportunities in the transplant community for someone without a medical background to make a difference in the world."

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