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One Family’s Three-Year Odyssey to a Liver and Kidney Transplant

When Julie Conlan received the call that a donor had been found, she would not be deterred by COVID-19.

Julie Conlan had been vacationing with her family in Turks and Caicos in August 2017, when she took a minor fall, resulting in a small scrape on her foot. Not thinking much of the incident, she kept the minor wound clean the remainder of the trip. Upon returning home, however, she developed a strange rash on her legs. “So I called my doctor right away because I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I catch in the islands.’”

Blood work revealed that her kidneys were not functioning properly, likely caused by a staph infection which had spread from the scrape on her foot. Conlan spent the ensuing months in and out of the hospital, undergoing tests, varying drug therapies and blood transfusions, all to no avail.

By the end of 2017, her nephrologist put her on dialysis. But her condition continued to deteriorate, and by the spring of 2018, she was told she would need a kidney transplant. Further tests brought her liver into question. Would it be healthy enough over time to work with a transplanted kidney?

“The hospital I was with at that time decided I needed a combined liver and kidney transplant, but months later, they turned me down because they felt I was too high of a risk,” Conlan, 66, recalls.

That’s when she called Jefferson.

“When I first went in, I knew that’s where I was supposed to be,” the Wallingford, PA resident says. “From the very beginning of the program, and the testing that I had to have done, everything was like lightning fast. They had all the testing done within 10 days.”

In November of 2018, she got the call that everything was a go. Now she just needed to wait – and hope – for a donor.

Sixteen more months passed.

When the phone rang on March 26, 2020, her daughter noticed what the caller ID read. “Mom, it says TRANSPLANT,” Conlan recalls. “I put that number in my phone so we would all know.” Within four hours Conlan was at Jefferson, being prepped for surgery.

It was the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that barely crossed Conlan’s mind. “That all went out of my head,” she recalls.  “All that mattered was they called me and I’m getting this done.”

The combined liver and kidney transplant surgery went as planned and she spent the following two weeks recuperating in the hospital.

I can’t say enough about Jefferson. Tremendous isn’t even the word for it – I don’t think there is a word for it. —Julie Conlan

Nurses called Christina, one of Conlan’s daughters, every two hours to let them know how the surgery was progressing, since they weren’t able to be in the waiting room due to COVID restrictions. Following the surgery, when Conlan was without her phone, nurses let her borrow their personal phones so she could FaceTime with her husband, Joe, and their children.

Jefferson Transplant Institute director Dr. Warren R. Maley, who performed Conlan’s surgery, called Christina when the surgery was over to assure her that all went well. He even provided his personal cell number for any follow-up questions. “Having that constant communication throughout gave us reassurance to know where she was in the surgery,” she recalls. “It was so helpful and so reassuring.”

While their mother recuperated, Christina and her siblings were figuring out how to care for their mother post-surgery and keep her safe from the virus.

Christina, a child life specialist at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, was accustomed to taking every precaution to guard against COVID-19. At that time, many healthcare workers were staying away from their families, not wanting to possibly expose them. Many were temporarily moving into RVs, trailers and campers that were being donated.

“I luckily found a place called RVs for MDs, who connected me with someone who was willing to donate an RV to put in my driveway,” Christina says. “They came the day before my mom came home and helped me set it up. This way I could be out of the house and my sisters could thoroughly clean the house so everything would be OK for mom to be in.”

The RV that Julie's daughter Christina stayed in while her mother recovered

Julie’s daughter Christina with Iain and Amy McClements, the owners of the RV who donated it to Christina for her live in while her mother recovered safely.

For the Conlans, it took at least some of the worry away in caring for their mother. “Knowing how compromised she was, and just being so scared because now she’s even more compromised, and how careful we have to be to make sure that she’s safe. It just eased a lot of worrying,” Christina says.

Christina stayed in the RV for about three months, until doctors said her mom’s immune system had sufficiently recovered. The entire family is now vaccinated against the virus.

The Conlans say they’ll forever be grateful to the Gift of Life Donor Program. And while they don’t know much about the donor, they hope to at least be able to send his family a note one day. “We will be forever grateful for the chance that he gave our mother,” Christina says. “He truly is our hero.”

Infographic depicting the multi-team effort for patient care at the Jefferson Transplant Institute
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COVID-19, Patient Perspectives