Ohio native reflects on becoming an altruistic living-liver donor

By: Nathan Hughes

“What made you want to donate?”

This is a question I was frequently asked before, during and after my living-donor liver transplant surgery. I often find myself trying to come up with an answer, but I suppose it really all began with my Aunt Karen.

My Aunt Karen was diagnosed with acute renal failure at the age of 28. She was also legally blind, among other complications, and she required dialysis three times a week. Over the course of three years, she was offered three kidneys–all of which she had to turn down because she was either too sick or hospitalized because of the renal failure.

In September 2008, our prayers were answered, and she was finally going to receive a new lease on life. The operation was successful, but her recovery was long and complicated. In January 2009, my Aunt Karen suffered from a heart attack, as well as a grand mal seizure, which ultimately led to her death on Feb. 4, 2009.

Years later, I found out I may have been a match for my aunt had I been older at the time. That still resonates deeply within me.

In August 2018, almost 10 years after my aunt’s transplant surgery, I decided I wanted to give back to someone else who might be suffering medically. I figured I would start by donating blood. Because I am gay, I ended up being turned away multiple times from donation centers since I am considered “high-risk.”  Still, I felt this urge to help someone, so I decided not to give up and to keep trying.

I spent long hours researching other ways to contribute, and, of course, my aunt came to mind. I searched  “donating time at a transplant center” in Google. An ad for UPMC was the first result. I clicked the ad and was intrigued to learn about living-donor liver donation, which is when a healthy person donates a portion of their liver to someone in need of a transplant, made possible by the liver’s unique ability to regenerate itself.

I knew there was a great need for organ donors, but what I didn’t know was how pressing the need for liver donation is. It hit me like lightning, and immediately I knew this was something I had to do.

That night, I stayed up for hours exhausting every resource available researching live donation. I thought about this for the next week. I called my mom, my nana and my husband and told them about my discovery. They were all very curious as to why I brought this up. I told them I felt I was meant to donate a portion of my liver to a complete stranger, speaking with full confidence and not an ounce of doubt – I knew I wanted to do it. Thankfully, I was met with an exuberant amount of support.

On Sept. 19, 2018, at 3 a.m., I woke up and drove four hours from a city just north of Dayton to Pittsburgh. I sat through numerous consults and underwent extensive testing, including blood work, a CT scan, a chest X-ray and an MRI. I received a call the following Tuesday telling me I was approved for donation. I hung up the phone, and, well, I cried.

I made two more trips to UPMC – one for donating stem cells, which in itself was an amazing process. On Dec. 20, the day had finally come, but I honestly don’t remember much. One thing I will never forget during my stay was my mom telling me she had accidentally met the family of the transplant recipient, Kathy, in the waiting room. What are the odds of that?

I first met Kathy on Christmas Day after I was initially discharged. What an unforgettable moment, filled with tears, hugs and laughter. Kathy calls me “her angel,” a title fitting for the both of us. Kathy and her family unknowingly changed my life forever.

From my very first moment at UPMC, I was welcomed with friendly faces and very knowledgeable staff. My care during my stay was by far the best care I have ever received while in a hospital. I cannot say enough great things about this great facility and the wonderful staff. I would especially like to thank my transplant coordinator, Tara. She helped me every step of the way, and without her, I would have been lost.

Why did I choose to donate? It wasn’t one factor, it was many. To me, organ donation is a small price to pay for such a beautiful outcome and a new lease on life.

For more information about becoming a living donor, click here.

* Nathan Hughes is a living-liver donor.