When Fred Melton, 62, of Sandy Springs, Ga., began experiencing weight fluctuation and leg swelling, he mentioned his symptoms to his primary care physician. He was then referred to a liver specialist, who ran multiple tests.
“He said, ‘You definitely have some liver problems and we can’t handle you here at this particular hospital,’” remembered Melton. “The next thing I know, I’m at Piedmont.”
Melton was diagnosed with severe end-stage liver disease cirrhosis and hepatocellular cancer, a common tumor that cirrhotics are prone to get.
Oncologists treated Melton’s tumor with localized chemotherapy called chemoembolization.
“It shrunk his tumor and allowed us to buy some time for him,” explained Harrison Pollinger, D.O., F.A.C.S., surgical director of liver transplantation at Piedmont Transplant Institute.
While the chemotherapy prevented the tumor from spreading, Melton still required a transplant because of the significant cirrhosis in his liver caused by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Although he endured months of grueling treatments, Melton said the worst part of the experience was waiting for a new liver that matched his blood type.
“It starts eating at you, particularly when you keep going up and down with the fluid in your stomach,” said Melton.
At first, Melton had fluid buildup removed once a month. As it gradually became more severe, he underwent the procedure once a week. His physicians told him he needed a transplant soon.
Finally, in November 2013, Melton received a phone call that a donor liver matching his blood type was available.
“He’s been waiting on the waiting list for quite some time,” said Dr. Pollinger. “A donor liver became available for him this evening.”
“Part of the reason that it takes so long to get a liver is 15,000 people need a liver, but there are only about 8,000 livers available each year,” says Melton.
“We work in teams,” said Dr. Pollinger. “There’s always a liver transplant surgeon on for the recipient operation and there’s another surgeon on for the donor operation.”
As Mark Johnson, M.D., program director and chairman, prepared the donor liver, he noted how healthy it was, with normal vessels and structure.
“It’s really fantastic that the donor donated their organs,” said Dr. Johnson.
“While I’m working on the recipient, Dr. Johnson will be preparing the [new] liver on the ice bath, getting the blood vessels ready, trimming it of any unnecessary, fatty tissue,” said Dr. Pollinger. “It really takes a team to get this operation done.”
Recovery time depends on how sick the patient was before undergoing the transplant.
“For someone like Fred who is sick, but otherwise in pretty good health, he should stay in the hospital for about seven days and be fully recovered in about three months,” said Dr. Pollinger.
Melton’s prognosis is good.
“With his new liver, Mr. Melton should no longer suffer from confusion related to liver disease,” said Devina Bhasin, M.D., his transplant hepatologist. “A lot of the fatigue people experience with cirrhosis from liver disease should, over time, get better.”
He will also no longer require the weekly procedures to remove fluid buildup in his abdomen.
“Almost most importantly, he no longer has liver cancer,” she said. “He’s been cured of that.”
Dr. Bhasin told Melton to “take it easy – you’ve got years ahead of you now.”
With his second chance at life, Melton plans to spend as much time as possible with his beloved grandchildren.
“I missed a summer of doing stuff with the grandkids,” he said.
“Like fishing,” added his grandson. “We always used to do that when I was a young kid – or younger.”
Since 2005, the Piedmont Transplant team has been caring for patients with liver disease and has performed more than 650 liver transplants.
Five days after his transplant, Fred Melton was discharged from Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. He is now making up for lost time with his grandchildren.
Visit Piedmont Transplant Institute to learn more about liver transplantation.