Son gives dad part of liver in rare living donor transplant

Living donor living transplant from patient's son is extremely unusual

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A West Michigan man who needed a liver transplant got the organ from an unexpected source: his son.

John Barnes, a lifelong newspaper man and writer living in Comstock Park, started feeling ill three years ago. His local doctor said it was mononucleosis.

It wasn’t.

“They said you have cirrhosis, which was like dropping a bomb on us,” Barnes said. “There’s really only one cure and you’ve got to get ready for a transplant.”

The portal vein that carried blood to his liver was defective, causing his liver to deteriorate.

The liver is an underestimated organ. When it goes bad, the effects can devastate a previously healthy person’s life.

“Every day was a challenge,” Barnes said. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t stay awake, I was in a lot of pain.”

Liver disease also effects the brain as toxins that are supposed to be filtered instead make their way to the brain. For someone like Barnes who makes his living writing and thinking, it was particularly difficult.

“I didn’t know how old I was some days or who the president was,” Barnes said.

There are about 17,000 people in the United States waiting for a liver transplant. For many, it never comes.

Barnes’ outlook was stark. At best, he was facing perhaps years of deteriorating health until he made his way on the transplant list to get a cadaver liver. At worst, he would die waiting.

There is a rarely used alternative: getting part of a liver from a living donor and transplanting it to the sick person, where it regenerates.

“We can lose anywhere between 20 to 25 percent of people while waiting,” said Henry Ford Health System Surgeon Dr. Marwan Abouljoud. “Living donor option can take that down to below 5 percent.”

The challenge is finding a donor. Barnes forbade his children from even getting tested to see if they were a match, but unknown to his dad, 23 year-old Brian Barnes did it anyway. He was a match.

“I was personally given a choice to help or to just kind of watch and wait,” he said. “That’s a pretty easy decision.”

The screening process is rigorous. Eighty-five percent of people don’t get through. Brian Barnes did.

“He gave up everything that was important in his life to go through this process,” John Barnes said of his son.

A living donor transplants are few and far between — that the donor was the patient’s son was even more unusual.

byran barnes, living donor liver transplant
A doctor checks out Brian Barnes after he gave his father part of his liver. (Courtesy Henry Ford Health System)

Father and son spent about a week in Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, which does 90 percent of living donor transplants in Michigan, starting July 11. Two separate surgical teams worked on the two patients to make sure that the welfare of both was made a priority. The procedure was a success, said Dr. Abouljoud, who oversaw it.

Abouljoud said the people who donate are seen as something different that the standard patient.

“We’re not dealing with regular people anymore,” he said. “We’re dealing with people who are much like angels. They should have wings on their shoulders because they are donating from themselves.”

john barnes, brian barnes, living donor liver transplant
John Barnes and his son Brian hold hands while in the hospital for a living donor liver transplant. (Courtesy Henry Ford Health System – July 2016)

The Barnses were the first people to do a living transplant in Michigan in 2016.

For John Barnes, the transformation was immediate, though he still has complications to iron out as he recovers.

“I don’t know that I could have any more love for my whole family, for my son, and how much they gave up for me,” he said.

Thousands die waiting for livers because of a lack of donors. Donating is free and easy. Details about how to become a donor can be found online on the Michigan Secretary of State’s website.

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