BY MICHAEL O’CONNOR
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
As a family physician, Dr. Joann Schaefer sometimes delivered bad news. Six weeks ago, she was the recipient.
Dr. Joann Schaefer will receive a transplant of half of Dr. Gary Gorby’s liver Monday at the Nebraska Medical Center. Schaefer, the State of Nebraska’s chief medical officer, was told she would need a liver transplant. Soon.
She has a life-threatening liver disease, her doctor says, and is scheduled to undergo a transplant Monday at the Nebraska Medical Center. Dr. Gary Gorby, a friend, is donating half of his liver.
Schaefer, who was appointed chief medical officer in 2005, said she hopes her case will raise awareness about organ donation. April is National Donate Life Month, which is aimed at encouraging people to become organ and tissue donors.
Nationally, more than 98,000 people await organ transplants. The count in Nebraska is 459 and in Iowa 472.
Schaefer was diagnosed with liver disease 12 years ago. At the time, doctors told her she would need a transplant eventually, probably within five to seven years.
The 40-year-old Schaefer, who is married to Phil Haines and has two daughters, said healthy eating and exercise helped her hold off on the transplant longer than doctors had anticipated.
Schaefer said she was in the best shape of her life when she was first diagnosed. She was training for a marathon, running up to seven miles a day and farther on weekends.
But a test for a life insurance policy indicated that her liver enzymes were high.
“I looked at the pattern and said, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” she said. “I knew there was a problem.”
More tests were needed to determine the severity of the problem. Before those tests were completed, Schaefer recalled that her grandmother had died from liver disease at age 52. She also knew it can be hereditary.
“A light went on,” she said.
Dr. Michael Sorrell, Schaefer’s liver specialist at the medical center, said a problem with her immune system likely caused the disease. The system has been attacking her liver, causing cirrhosis or scarring. Her condition was possibly inherited, he said.
Although alcohol abuse and infectious hepatitis can cause liver disease, that is not the case with Schaefer, Sorrell said.
The scarring led to internal bleeding. Some internal bleeding persists, though Schaefer’s most serious problems were fixed with surgery four years ago.
Other symptoms, including weight loss, extreme fatigue and constant nausea, have become worse over the past few months.
Schaefer, a former high school tennis player, struggles to walk up steps. Favorite foods like homemade burritos don’t sound appetizing anymore.
Testing in February showed she couldn’t wait much longer for a transplant.
With a successful transplant, Schaefer can lead a normal life, Sorrell said.
If she had to wait for a liver from a deceased donor, it would be at least two years before the transplant, he said. Schaefer, he said, was fortunate to find a live donor.
Nine family members and friends volunteered. Gorby, her friend, turned out to be a good match.
They’ve known each other for more than a decade and live in the same west Omaha neighborhood. Gorby, chief of infectious diseases at Creighton University School of Medicine, said he got to know Schaefer best through his work with the state on public health issues.
Gorby will miss four to eight weeks of work after doctors remove the right half of his liver. The remaining half will regenerate and grow back to full size, he said.
His doctors have told him that once he recovers, he will be able to lead a normal life and his liver should work fine.
Gorby said he considers it a privilege, not a sacrifice, to donate to Schaefer.
“You don’t get the opportunity to save the life of a friend very often,” he said.