This was no ordinary picnic despite the park setting, grilled hot dogs, hamburgers, and all the usual side dishes, condiments, sodas, and, of course the threat of thunder storms looming. Aside from this journalist, all the picnickers were either a survivor of a liver transplant, a supporting family member, or a member of the University of Cincinnati (UC) Medical Center Transplant Team. These people already weathered a life-threatening storm. At some point a doctor diagnosed them with a serious liver disease.
For them, it was the forecast of a storm to come. This often comes without warning; like it did for transplant survivor John V. Mock who served as grill master chef for the picnic.
He is coming up on the four year anniversary of his transplant. Saturday was day number 1,421 since his transplant surgery June 22, 2018 – he counts every day. His storm came without warning.
“I was perfectly healthy, had an annual physical every year,” said Mock. “I was 56 years old, had my annual physical two weeks after Thanksgiving of 2017. On December 29, 2017, I went to bed looking like this and I woke up looking like I was six months pregnant. You wouldn’t believe the photos.”
Mock’s daughter was six months pregnant at the time. They did a side-by-side photo he describes only as “scary”. He was scared. His doctor couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong. He began seeing a liver specialist who didn’t have a clear diagnosis at the time, but suggested they get him on the UC transplant program. There were treatments and uncertainty about what would come next. It can be compared to watching the skies darken as the storm clouds gather.
As the condition of the liver worsens, patients make applications, application for a place on the liver transplant list. Then they wait as their health condition worsens like ominous clouds gathering. They’re hoping and praying for a matching liver donor to be found before the storm breaks loose with all its fury. When that happens, the U.C. Transplant Team is like the first ray of sunshine as the clouds part, darkness fades and fear is replaced with the light of hope.
The threatening and passing storm is a simplified metaphor for the journey these and any transplant survivor is on. Don’t be fooled by the colorful analogy, these people are surviving a life and death situation. The donors and transplant team are heroes. But most of all, the transplant survivor and their families are heroes. That brings us back to the 50 or so heroes at the UC transplant picnic. By the way, the forecast thunderstorm did arrive Saturday afternoon, but not before they enjoyed a great picnic with family, friends, food, live music and raised more than $1,300 to help support transplant patients trying to survive their personal storm. Corey King, Transplant Administrator for UC Medical Center says that is what the picnic was all about.
“Today we’re having an event where a lot of our liver transplant recipients are getting together,” said King. “There is really a community around people who have received a liver transplant; people who have gone through a lot of the same situations with a liver transplant. Building this liver transplant community helps people to have a peer system, talk with other people and, on a day like today have a social event where they get to know each other.”
They have the common bond of going through a liver transplant and surviving it. The transplant surgery is not the end. It is more of a beginning; a new beginning, a new lease on life. Sharing that experience in a social setting with a like community of people brings hope to their survival journey. Bob Briggs is a long-time member of the community. His story included IV drug use and health problems which date back to 1976 when the only treatment available was the drug Interferon. He did fine until 1996. By 1997, he was going through the process of getting listed for a liver transplant. His liver transplant surgery happened in 1998 and he is now a 24-year transplant survivor.
“I was 50 at the time. I was a mailman,” said Briggs. “They actually brought Hoxworth out to my branch and did a blood drive on my behalf. It was pretty amazing.”
Briggs got very sick and was in the hospital when they found the matching liver donor. He had been transferred to UC hospital and was on the transplant floor at the time the match was found. His wife actually received the call at home and then called to inform him. During his retelling of the story, Bob Briggs pointed out his church was supporting him at the time letting everybody know a match had been found. Family was an important part for him too with his three daughters, 23, 18 and 12 at the time. It was 24 years ago and he is still here today sharing his story with other transplant survivors at a group picnic in Hopewell Park.
“I gotta give (them) a hope shot,” Briggs said. “They need to know you can live a long time afterwards. I met one just six months out. I said I had one 1998, 24 years. I gave her a hope shot.”
Briggs says church is a big part of it for him. He believes in the power of prayer. There was a time when that was not the case for him. Health problems mounted and nothing seemed to be helping. It was his mother who said to him “You’ve tried everything else, why not try God?” He said a prayer immediately. It’s worth repeating: he was there at the picnic Saturday, May 21, 2022 as a 24 year liver transplant survivor spreading hope. Ironically, and everyone involved says it was an accident the gathering took place at Hopewell Park in the Montgomery area. King says he didn’t even think of it, but pointed to another interesting connection.
“What’s interesting too is the U.C. Health slogan is: In Science lives Hope,” King said. “We have hope there too.”
The transplant program at the University of Cincinnati is bringing more than hope. The past few years have seen the program grow in size and recognition nationally.
“Our transplant program at UC has really grown in the past few years,” said King. “We used to be kind of a medium-sized program and we’re one of the largest transplant centers in the United States right now. A lot of that is we have a really good team.”
Part of what King does as an administrator is working with the team that has been assembled to take care of their transplant patients. His responsibilities include the clinical aspects of the program, but also the regulatory aspects and strategic initiatives to help the transplant program grow in successful transplant survivor outcomes. King says it is truly a team made up of people bringing many different skills to the care of a transplant patient.
“We definitely have what we call a multidisciplinary team,” he said. “We have surgeons and physicians, social workers, nurses, medical assistants, psychologists, dieticians, and financial counselors. A lot of these people are visiting each patient when they’re coming to the clinic for an evaluation and part of their care during the post-transplant side as well. It is truly a multidisciplinary effort.”
King says they have 50-60 people on their transplant team not including the physicians and surgeons. You can add another 5-6 surgeons and another 5-6 physicians. The transplant team also has multiple organs which then adds cardiologists, nephrologists, and. . . well you get the idea.
“It is really a very streamlined team that works together,” King said. “But it is a large team we have. When we get in a room to talk about cases, it’s a very large room.
Working together as a large team creates an environment where they can discuss cases together and learn from each other. The patients will tell you the transplant team becomes like family. King says the picnic and other similar events where they come together as a community demonstrates how not only the individual patient and the transplant team are family, but also the entire transplant community is like family.
“What’s great about events like today is this is a family,” said King. “I’ve mentioned community. This is a family for them. I know a lot of these patients as well because I’m very involved in a lot of things so I consider them family, they consider me family. I consider the transplant team family. It’s like this large extended family that we have.”
King does not coordinate the day-to-day acquisition of transplant organs. That is left up to the medical team. On the other hand, he does help develop the criteria for the organs they should accept. Still, when it comes to the individual decisions, it is the nurses, physicians and surgeons who come together when an organ is available to answer the questions: is this a good organ? Is this the best organ for this patient? This team doing this work all adds up to transplant survivors and a successful growing UC Medical Center transplant program.
“Last year we did about 350-360 transplants in the year,” King said. “That included liver, heart, pancreas and kidney transplants. We’re transplanting patients from all over.”
The UC transplant program used to be more of a Cincinnati area transplant program Today they’ve expanded and become nationally recognized with people coming from all over the country seeking their care here.
“They know we have a good team,” said King. “They’re coming to us now.”
They all have a story of how they came to the UC Medical Center transplant program. One of the most interesting shared during the picnic was the story of how John V. Mock got on the list and received a transplant nearly four years ago in 2018. Diagnosed in December 2017, he did not know how long it would take to get on the list, let alone find a good match and have transplant surgery.
“On St. Patrick’s Day I went into total liver failure,” said Mock. “On December 28, I was walking around healthy. On March 17, I was discolored, jaundiced; my liver was shutting down very quickly. I was going to die.”
The doctors increased his medication and started seeing him on a weekly basis. Mock was in rapid decline and did not have long. So many things had to happen just right. He faced not even getting on the transplant list until Labor Day that was the earliest he could get scheduled for required tests. People cancelled and within a week he had all his tests done. Still there were more challenges faxing paperwork for state approval which takes two weeks. It took a day. Then later the same day he received a call telling him they had the perfect donor match. Mock thought it was a mistake. It wasn’t and he was at the hospital within the hour prepping for surgery. He tells the story of a tragic accident which saved his life.
“On June 19th, a 40 year old husband, father of three came home and choked on a piece of steak with his dinner,” Mock said. “Paramedics were there in less than four minutes, couldn’t do anything, emergency room couldn’t do anything and they had to take him to emergency surgery to extricate and that was too late for him.”
The donor’s name is Clete and he was placed on life support. Because he chose to become a registered organ donor and the situation of his organs being viable, Life Center stepped in and worked with his wife, parents and step-parents ensure his organ donation wishes were honored. Of the 160 patients on the transplant list at the time, John V. Mock was the one perfect match. Today he maintains a relationship with Clete’s family and credits them for helping him through the issues faced in post-transplant surgery. The importance of registering to be an organ and tissue donor is the one message Corey King hopes will come from sharing the stories of the transplant survivors and the UC Medical Center transplant program.
“There are a lot of families making decisions for themselves or loved ones as organ donors,” King said. “We couldn’t do what we do without our organ donors. Our organ donors are heroes. We wouldn’t be able to save so many lives without our organ donors. There are a lot of people who can become organ donors. That’s my overall message.”
Corey King is the program administrator, but he has help when it comes to bringing the group of transplant survivors together as part of a growing peer support program. One of those helpers is transplant survivor Brian Martin from Loveland. It wasn’t too long ago when a donor saved his life. He gives thanks to God and family, including his UC transplant team family for the chance to keep on living. Helping to support and build a peer support group means a lot to him.
“I think getting the word out; there is a community of people who would not be here if not for the selfless act of our donors,” said Martin. “When I went through it, and others went through it, there wasn’t really a support system.”
Martin didn’t know what he was getting into. He says he didn’t know what he was in for; like the 15 medications he takes daily. He didn’t even know he could survive the transplant. Or, as John V. Mock mentioned the survivor guilt when a death occurs making an organ available to save their life.
“We hope this transplant survivor community can be support and come along side people going through it and show them they can survive it,” Martin said. “I just know the minute I woke up from the transplant I had this feeling of gratefulness that I can’t explain. I just wanted to do whatever I could to help other people get through it. I just want to honor God for the blessings and this gift and to give back to Dr. Shah and his team to help other people. It’s a team thing.”
Learn more about the UC Medical Center transplant community at: www.transplantcommunity.org