Atlanta, Ga. (June 17, 2014) – Susan Honea didn’t think she’d live to see her 40th birthday. Having struggled for over 10 years with an autoimmune disease that left her waiting for a liver transplant at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, Honea was preparing for the worst when she got the call that would change her life.
“Two months ago, I was planning my funeral,” said Honea. “Now, I’m planning the rest of my life.”
Diagnosed at age 29 with primary biliary cirrhosis, an autoimmune disease that slowly destroys the bile ducts in the liver, Honea was told by her doctors that she would likely need a liver transplant in 10 years despite the fact she experienced no symptoms leading up to her diagnosis.
“We don’t know what causes primary biliary cirrhosis as there are multiple factors involved in the development of this disease,” said Devina Bhasin, M.D., Piedmont Transplant. “If Susan hadn’t tried to give blood to the American Red Cross that day, she wouldn’t have found out her liver enzyme levels were abnormal and sought out medical care that would prolong her need for a liver transplant.”
Women account for approximately 90 percent of primary biliary cirrhosis cases, according to the American Liver Foundation. It is commonly diagnosed in people ages 35 to 60. Symptoms include fatigue, itchy skin, pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen, yellowing of the skin and eyes, darkening of the skin that is not related to sun exposure and more. With every year the disease progresses, patients become at greater risk for developing serious complications. Honea experienced a number of them.
“You really are trying to buy time and patch the side effects until a donor liver comes in,” said Honea. “Some of the procedures I underwent to keep my body going while I was waiting for a transplant could have caused my liver to fail all together and if that happened, there was no dialysis for that sort of thing. It was a gamble I had to take.”
Honea’s transplant journey was filled with ups and downs. She underwent countless treatments and procedures until finally, she got the call she had been waiting for just a month or so before her 40th birthday.
“When they call you, you think you’ll jump up and down, and scream for joy,” said Honea, who was on the liver transplant waiting list for one year and two days before getting a transplant. “But I just cried.”
Currently, there are 234 Georgians waiting for a liver transplant, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Honea’s own experience on the waiting list left her with a deeper appreciation and understanding of what it means to be an organ donor.
“Years ago, they gave you a discount on your license,” said Honea. “That’s how I became a donor. I didn’t give it another thought. My mom really changed my mind on the issue. She always said, ‘Let them take anything they need – organs, skin, anything – if it helps someone to live.’ I just did it for a cheaper license. I didn’t realize at the time what it meant for other people even though I was a donor.”
To learn more about becoming an organ donor, visit donatelifegeorgia.org.