The first liver transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital was in 1993; much has changed since those early days of organ transplantation.
Jerry Goldfarb was one of the hospital’s first liver transplant recipients. During a routine check-up, his physician noted a possible problem with Jerry’s liver and suggested further testing. It was eventually determined he had hepatitis C. “There was not a definitive test for hepatitis C at that time. Transplant was in its infancy, and I needed a new liver,” says Jerry.
His wife, Meryl, immediately became involved. “Hepatitis C was relatively unknown at that time,” she says, reflecting on the time immediately following his diagnosis. “We saw everyone. We went to New York and even considered going to a female hepatologist in London for treatment.”
After an international search, someone recommended a surprising location. As fate would have it, help was just across the street. The Goldfarbs lived one block away from Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
A Guiding Team
Although Northwestern Memorial Hospital conducted its first kidney transplant in 1964, it did not expand its services to include pancreas and liver transplantation until 1993.
Under the direction of Michael Abecassis, MD, MBA, now the chief of Organ Transplantation in the Department of Surgery, Jerry finally put his name on the transplant list and waited for his turn.
Jerry spent six weeks in the intensive care unit before his transplant. In the days leading up to surgery, anxiety loomed for the couple. Meryl confides they were looking for a sense of control.
“I didn’t have control over anything for so long. He’d been vomiting blood, and we were bouncing between the emergency room and our condo,” she recalls. Yet, despite the growing anxiety, they remained hopeful and were not going to ‘settle’ for anything less than full recovery. “I did not get married at 50 to become a widow at 55.”
Even amid the seriousness of the situation, there were some laughs, Meryl admits with a chuckle. The day of the surgery, she forgot to dilute the betadine solution used to sterilize Jerry’s skin. So he was rolled into the operating room in an unusually bright orange hue.
Joking aside, Jerry is grateful for their choice. “We had a lot of confidence. Dr. Abecassis is an exceptional surgeon,” he says.
“The liver always came first.”
The surgery was successful, and both Jerry and Meryl understood the gravity of the gift they have been given.
“You don’t want to take advantage of the organ. It was a miracle, a blessing and a gift. We have respected that throughout the years,” says Meryl, who changed her diet alongside Jerry in a show of support. Together, they adopted a new lifestyle, including eating a healthy, organic diet and building stamina. “We want to preserve our gift as long as possible.”
Their new life has been filled with joy. Meryl and Jerry have travelled and continue to stay active — always attentive to protecting Jerry’s liver. Jerry continues to see Dr. Abecassis. He adds, “I spent several years volunteering in the transplant group, telling them my experience and helping others feel encouraged.”
The couple admits it’s been a long road, but they say it’s been a wonderful life, and they would not hesitate to do it again.
Continuing to Provide Hope
Jerry’s message to others is “that there is life after transplant.”
Despite being one of the first liver transplant patients, Jerry’s confidence never wavered. “They saved my life,” he says.
The Northwestern Medicine Comprehensive Transplant Center continues to pave the way for patient breakthroughs, completing nearly 2,000 liver transplants and 5,000 kidney transplants since the program began.
Northwestern Medicine physicians continue to spearhead leading-edge research and clinical care innovations. Work by Dr. Abecassis and colleagues by using genomic biomarkers has allowed for the prediction of rejection, allowing for improved transplant outcomes. Recent studies by Joseph R. Leventhal, MD, PhD, look to utilize a patient’s own stem cells to avoid the need for lifetime immunosuppression. Other studies by Jason A. Wertheim, MD, PhD, aim to use a patient’s stem cells together with organ scaffolds to regenerate and replace diseased organs, solving the organ shortage crisis.
The growth of transplantation in the last 25 years is staggering. Today, 120,000 people suffer from organ failure and are on the national waiting list for organs. Nearly 99,000 are waiting for kidneys and roughly 16,000 are waiting for livers. To learn more about the needs and how you can make a difference, visit organdonor.gov.
Hear more stories of transplant innovation and hope here.