Tyler County woman donates liver to man in need

Photo Provided Jodi Holberton and Vance Williams after the liver transplant.

MIDDLEBOURNE — Selfless acts are committed each day by people looking to lend a helping hand. However, none may be quite as serious and touching as the act committed by Middlebourne resident Jodi Holberton.

After a fall at the family farm in April 2018, Vance Williams, who is from Burgettstown, Pa., learned he had developed fatty liver disease which turned into cirrhosis.

Williams was put on a transplant list, and on three occasions, he was called in when a liver was available from a deceased donor. However, all three ultimately failed. His wife Lynn expressed that his condition was steadily worsening and she feared he wouldn’t survive.

However, it was at this point that Jodi Holberton heard of the situation. Although she had never met Williams, she was good friends with his cousin.

It was during a visit with this individual that they received a phone call informing them about Williams’ third attempt at a transplant.

Holberton reported she felt joy for Williams. However when she followed up with her friend the following day, she learned that the liver hadn’t survived transport.

Holberton couldn’t forget about Williams. She said that she felt as if God had placed him on her heart, and she contemplated becoming a donor for this cause. Holberton spent the next few days praying about this as she wanted to make sure that it was God’s will.

During this time of seeking God’s will and direction, she remembered the words of a doctor from when she received outpatient surgery in April 2018. She said, “The only thing I remember coming out of that surgery was my doctor saying, ‘You have a beautiful liver.'”

These are the words that continued to repeat themselves in her head, and so in mid October, she applied to become a donor online.

Following the submission of her application, she was contacted by UPMC Living Organ Donor Transplant Team and filled out the paperwork. In early November, Holberton met with the entire transplant team for an evaluation.

Holberton explained that doctors take an oath to never harm any individual, and that extracting the liver from a healthy, living donor feels almost like a violation of this oath.

Therefore it is necessary for donors like Holberton to be evaluated by the surgeon, doctors, a social worker, a psychologist, and to meet with the rest of the team, such as the anesthesiologist. All of this was in the effort to ensure that Holberton was mentally, emotionally, and physically able to undergo the process of donating her liver.

Holberton said that during the evaluation the surgeon expressed concern over whether her liver would be large enough to donate to Williams if she were to be accepted. Holberton explained that she is 5 foot 2 inches and 108 pounds, and that Williams is 6-feet-4 and weighs 200 pounds.

As a result of the vast size difference, there were doubts this transplant from Holberton to Williams would be possible. She said it was described as a “long shot.”

However, two weeks later they were informed she had been approved. In fact, while at the pre-operation appointment, Holberton was informed she had a “man size liver.” For her, this was an amazing reassurance from God that she was doing the right thing. It was also an immense relief for the Williamses.

Holberton explained that when she was younger she experienced medical issues, and because of her small size she always felt as if her body was holding her back. However, from this experience she learned that her body is far more capable and far stronger than what she ever realized it was.

On Dec. 10, Holberton and Williams entered surgery. Holberton said because of the size of her liver, they only needed to remove 55 percent of it rather than the 60-75 percent usually removed.

Upon entering surgery, Holberton said she wasn’t afraid. While during the six-week process for evaluation, she experienced fear and doubt and said she had enough assurance from God that these were the correct actions. She felt peace before the surgery.

She described the event as God’s plan and said she was merely the instrument.

The surgery was such a success that both Holberton and Williams were able to be released early. Holberton said they broke UPMC records of being discharged when she was released two days early and Williams was released a full week ahead of schedule.

It was during their recovery time while in the hospital that Williams and Holberton first met. The two have been so moved by this experience that they have agreed to a “Liverversary” each year on the day of their surgery, Dec. 10.

However, after the initial recovery, Williams faced post-operation complications and was hospitalized twice after. During one of Williams’ checkups, they found that fluid had built-up. A small incision was made to release the fluids and Williams was given medication and sent home.

However, his wife Lynn said when she noticed it had become infected, they returned to the hospital.

Williams was forced to stay in the hospital for two weeks while he healed. Williams recovered and was able to return home. However, it wasn’t for long as a day later they were forced to return to the hospital again.

As a result of these complications, Williams was in the hospital on Christmas Day, much to the disappointment of Holberton; she expressed her hope for him to be at home with his family on the holiday. However, she drove to UPMC that day to spend some time with him while he continued his recovery.

Now, Williams’ wife Lynn reports that he is doing well and his body is continuing the healing process.

Dr. Christopher Hughes, surgical director of liver transplants at UPMC, said, “Vance’s liver was more sick than I think he even realized. He didn’t have time to wait on the waiting list, so when Jodi stepped forward it was truly a life-saving blessing. Both Jodi and Vance have done extremely well. The surgery was on Dec. 10, less than three months ago. By now, the two portions of liver (right lobe given to the recipient and the left lobe kept in the donor) are almost completely normal in size. Regeneration of the liver happens that fast!”

Of the process, both Lynn and Holberton described it as a long journey. Holberton said for her it was a journey of faith and learning who she is as a person.

The Williamses said they are very thankful for Holberton, and reported that for those going through a similar process, this is a story of hope. “Living donors save people,” Lynn said.

Holberton said that through this experience she has learned that fear is a liar. While many might have heard this expression before, she explained that one doesn’t truly understand it until they walk through an experience where one’s belief in it is put to the test.

She said that it’s hard in the moment to be objective and to figure out if one is taking the right actions or if they are doing their own thing. She also said that when one is completing God’s will, many things get “thrown at you.”

However, Holberton said that one has to persevere in the face of fear and she had to put her faith in God in this situation.

“Being a living donor is a wonderful thing,” Holberton said. “But it’s not for the faint of heart.”

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