Marcela’s Story: A Liver Transplant Gives the Gift of Life
Patient is HCV Positive, liver transplanted from a 22-year-old donor performed at age 70. Interview conducted 14 years post-liver transplant.
Author: Gail S. Thornton, M.A.
Co-Editor: The VOICES of Patients, HealthCare Providers, Caregivers and Families: Personal Experience with Critical Care and Invasive Medical Procedures
For Marcela Almada Calles of Valle de Bravo, Mexico, a picturesque town on the shores of Lake Avándaro about two hours outside of Mexico City where she has lived for 30 years, life is about seizing the moment and having “an open mind and positive attitude.” An active woman in her 80’s, Marcela’s days are full of professional and personal achievements and a long list of activities still to accomplish. However, life wasn’t always so positive as she put her life on hold for two-and-a-half years to relocate to Los Angeles, California, so that she could have a liver transplant.
“My spirit and attitude have always been what has carried me through life and difficult situations. This time was no different.”
Image SOURCE: Photographs courtesy of Marcela Almada Calles.
Marcela’s story started 20 years ago during a time when she operated a successful event planning and catering business for high-profile government and social dignitaries, pharmaceutical companies, and luxury department stores.
“I normally worked long hours from early morning until evening, until one day, I felt exceptionally tired and it became a huge effort to concentrate. My ankles were swollen and I was out of breath all the time and my skin was yellow. I felt sleepy and would sometimes become tired during the day. This was unusual for me. I knew something was not right.”
At that point, Marcela decided to make an appointment with her local physician and friend, Dr. Sergio Ulloa, a highly regarded rheumatologist and corporate and government affairs leader in Mexico, who examined her and took several blood tests. When the blood results came back, Dr. Ulloa immediately referred her to Dr. Sergio Kershenovich, a well-regarded hepatologist, at his private clinic, who checked her for symptoms of Hepatitis C. After that Marcela decided to get another opinion and went to see Dr. Fernando Quijano, a general surgeon, who immediately wanted her to have surgery because he had found a cancerous tumor in her liver.
“My doctors’ opinions were that I needed to have a liver transplant immediately because I was in liver failure. It appeared that I had a failing liver — and a tumor there as well and my liver was not working properly.”
Relocating Life to the United States
At that point, my six children – Marcela, Luis, Diego, Rodolfo, Gabriela, Mario — who live in parts of Mexico and Singapore became involved in my health care decisions and treatment plan.
“My son, Luis, believed the best treatment for me was to see a liver specialist in the United States so that I received the best care from a leading liver transplantation hospital. He made some connections with friends and that next day, Dr. Francisco Durazo, chief of Transplant Hepatology and medical director of the Dumont UCLA Liver Transplant Center in Los Angeles, told me to come immediately to see him. I remember my children were supportive and concerned, but were afraid for me as we all knew that I had a long road ahead of me.”
At that time, she was put on a national liver transplant list by the UCLA Transplant Center.
“What I didn’t know was that more than 9,000 potential recipients are currently awaiting liver transplants.” http://transplants.ucla.edu/site.cfm?id=397
“Dr. Durazo was very concerned and told me that my liver was not working at all and I had to have a liver transplant as soon as possible, so he asked me to stay in Los Angeles, since I was now part of a transplant list.”
Evaluation By Transplant Team
Marcela’s case is no different than any other patient awaiting a liver transplant. According to their web site, the UCLA Transplant Center conducts evaluations over two or three days. During this time, the patients meets with a social worker, transplant hepatologist, surgeon, transplant coordinator, psychiatrist and dietitian, as well as other specialists as needed. The evaluation is customized to each patient’s medical condition. Once the evaluation is completed, each patient’s case is presented at a weekly meeting of the UCLA Liver Transplant Consultation Team. This group includes specialists from surgery, adult and pediatric hepatology, cardiology, pulmonary, nephrology, hematology, infectious disease, as well as transplant coordinators and social workers. At this time, the team determines if any other tests are required to ensure the patient’s candidacy for transplant, then the patient and the physician are notified of the recommendation made by the transplant team. http://transplants.ucla.edu/site.cfm?id=401
Waiting For Answers
Marcela arrived at UCLA in Los Angeles with her family on Mother’s Day — May 10, 1999 — for what she describes as “the best time in her life to be alive with the help of medicine and technology.” That meant that she needed to rent an apartment and live near the hospital in case the doctors received an anonymous donor who would give her the gift of life.
“I had to wear a beeper 24 hours a day and I was never alone. My children took turns over the next two-and-a-half years to give up their lives with their families to live with me and help me navigate the health care system and my upcoming surgery.”
Marcela filled her days at her new apartment in Los Angeles reading about her condition, meditating to quiet her mind, watching television, and talking with family, friends and neighbors.
“The doctors called me two times over the next few months, saying they had an anonymous liver donor and I needed to come now to the hospital for tests. Unfortunately, those blood tests and other diagnostic tests showed that I was not a good match, so the doctors sent me home. It was a frustrating time because I wanted to have the liver transplant surgery and move on with my life.”
Finally, after waiting eight months for a liver transplant, Marcela’s outlook on life was greatly improved when an anonymous donor gave her the gift of life – a new, healthy liver.
“The donor’s blood type was a match for me. The surgery took eight hours and it was successful. The doctors told me that my immune system might reject my new liver, so I was given a cocktail of medicines, such as anti-rejection drugs, corticosteroids, calcinurin inhibitors, mTOR inhibitors, and antibiotics and watched very closely in the hospital.”
Marcela was then permitted to leave the hospital only a week after her surgery.
“That was the happiest day of my life. My spirits were high and I had a life to live.”
Her children served as her strength.
“My children took turns flying back and forth to Los Angeles to stay with me. They had a long list of instructions from the doctor. I could take some walks and eat small meals for the next few weeks, but I couldn’t exert myself in any way. I developed a cold over the next few weeks, as my immune system was low, so I had to take special care to eat right, get enough sleep and, most of all, relax. My body, spirit and mind had much healing to do.”
For the next 1 ½ years, Los Angeles was my “second” home.
“I needed to remain there after the procedure so my doctors could monitor my progress. During that time, I felt stronger each day. The support of my family was a true blessing for me. They were my eyes and ears – and my greatest advocates. My doctor recommended that I come weekly for check-ups and go through a physical therapy program so that I could regain my liver function and physical strength. I followed all my doctor’s orders.”
Day by day, Marcela believed as if she could conquer the world.
“I decided, one day many months after the surgery, to become ‘irresponsible’ and spent time with a few good friends, Gabriela and Guadalupe, who traveled to see me. For a weekend, we went to Las Vegas to see shows and go to the casinos. I laughed, played and walked all I could. My children didn’t even know what I was up to, but I felt good and wanted to enjoy the world and my new freedom.”
Marcela was able to return home to Valle de Bravo with a fresh perspective, a long list of things to do, and many happy memories.
“Since that time, I have kept myself active and busy; I never let my mind and heart rest. I am also forever grateful to my anonymous liver donor because it is because of a 22-year-old young man who died in an unfortunate automobile accident that I am here today.”
Liver Transplant Facts
The liver is the body’s vital organ that you cannot live without. It serves many critical functions, including metabolism of drugs and toxins, removing degradation products of normal body metabolism and synthesis of many proteins and enzyme, which are necessary for blood to clot. Transplantation is the only cure for liver insufficiency or liver failure because no device or machine reliably performs all the functions of the liver. http://transplant.surgery.ucsf.edu/conditions–procedures/liver-transplantation.aspx
According to a hospital transplant web site, overall, outcomes for liver transplantation are very good, but vary significantly depending on the indication for liver transplant as well as factors associated with the donor. Currently, the overall patient survival one year after liver transplant is 88 percent. Patient survival five years after liver transplant is 73 percent. These results vary significantly based on the indication for liver transplantation. The encouraging trend is that over the past 20 years short- and long-term patient survival has continued to improve. With advances in surgical technique, organ preservation, peri-operative care, and immunosuppression, survival will hopefully continue to improve in the future. http://transplant.surgery.ucsf.edu/conditions–procedures/liver-transplantation.aspx
Life For Marcela Today
Science is helping rebalance medicine with the most innovative discoveries and new ways of treating illness.
“I am happy to be part of the solution with a happy ending, too.”
Today, Marcela leads a rich and full life.
“It’s been 14 years since my liver transplant. I continue to feel healthy and alive. Nothing will keep me from doing what I want to do.”
Marcela has an active social life. She takes frequent vacations around the world, including a three-month holiday to Asia, where she travels multiple times to Bali, Cambodia, China and Singapore, where her daughter lives. She is an avid golfer and organizes tournaments in many private golf courses. She is learning to speak French, which is an easy transition (she says) from speaking Spanish. She plays cards with a group of friends weekly, sings in a musical group, and takes dance lessons, too. Life is very, very good.
Editor’s note: We would like to thank Gabriela Contreras, a global communications consultant and patient advocate, for the tremendous help and support that she provided in locating and scheduling time to talk with Marcela Almada Calles.
Marcela Almada Calles provided her permission to publish this interview on July 21, 2016.
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