Ryan Labbe was no stranger to liver problems, but at the age of 26 he began the fight of his life.
This post originally appeared at Blast Magazine
By Ryan Labbe
It began in a gym in Rocky Hill, Connecticut in July 2007. What started as an energized workout was overcome by exhaustion and the sickening thought that something was very wrong. That morning in the gym would be my last for over a year and half.
Eight hours later, I was in my apartment struggling to keep food and drink down. I was sweating profusely, had a headache unlike I’d ever felt before, and a tinge of yellow had creeped into my eyes. The next day, jaundice had taken over my entire body. My girlfriend at the time, Trine (now my wife), said I looked like Bart Simpson and that my eyes looked like yellow highlighters. I spent a week in the hospital as doctors ran test after test trying to figure out what was wrong with me. That morning was the beginning of a long journey that would take me in and out of hospitals, to the verge of dying from a failing liver, and, finally, to the OR of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida, where I would receive a life-saving liver transplant.
I was no stranger to liver problems. I was born with Biliary Atresia, a congenital absence of the bile ducts. I had surgery as an infant to repair the ducts. The operation was called the Kasai procedure, though I often referred to it as the ‘MacGyver’ of gastrointestinal surgeries, as it entails fashioning a makeshift bile duct from the small intestine. The Kasai is often referred to as a ‘bridge to transplant’ and is generally not intended to be permanent. I was extremely fortunate to get 26 healthy years.
Four months after my initial hospitalization, and a few weeks after I had relocated to south Florida, I diagnosed with end stage liver disease and told I would need a liver transplant. My morning routine used to include the gym, high energy workouts, and protein shakes. Now they consisted of intense itching, yellow skin, and vomiting if I ingested anything with more protein than a piece of cheese. Even after a full night’s sleep, my energy level would be low at best. This was my life at its worst during the months leading up to my transplant. Though even during this time, I maintained an optimism that I would get my transplant and life would be even better than before. It’s important to note that much of this was due to Trine’s love and support. In 1984, she became Florida’s first liver transplant, and having her as both a medical advocate and someone who could identify with what I was going through, was a key part of my journey.
On a Friday morning in May 2008, as I showered and prepared for the work day, Trine burst through the door, excitedly screaming that I had gotten “the call” and needed to be at the hospital in 5 hours. A donor liver had become available! I was wheeled into the operating room at 8:30 p.m. on May 23, 2008. The extremely complicated surgery took 12 hours.
The months following my transplant did not go as smoothly as I had anticipated. I was in and out of the hospital with major organ rejection and 104 degree fevers stemming from biliary strictures; basically, blockages in the bile ducts. Over the year, my illness had taken me from a healthy, muscular 185 lbs. down to thin, gaunt 145 lbs. The optimism that had carried me through the months leading up to my transplant was being eaten away by the ensuing complications. In October 2008, the doctors performed a second surgery, cleaning away scar tissue that was pressing against my bile ducts. From there, things began to improve. In December 2008, two weeks before getting married to Trine, I was back in the gym.
While in the hospital during the summer of 2008, Trine, a liver transplant recipient as well, was told about a reality show called Wedding Day. They were looking to produce an episode for a couple touched by organ donation/transplantation. The winning couple would win their dream wedding from TNT and Mark Burnett Productions; think Extreme Home Makeover, but for weddings. In December 2008, my wife and I were told we had won, and were married on the beach in Miami. It truly was an amazing way to cap off what had been a very trying year for the both of us.
The story doesn’t quite end there.
At our wedding, the surgeon who performed Trine’s transplant in 1984, Dr. Thomas Starzl, told Trine’s mother that “this one will give you grandkids.” In July 2011, we welcomed a son, Andersen, into our world. He is, as far as doctors know, the first child born to two liver transplant recipients.
Today, I am back to working full-time, working out every day, and being a happy, healthy husband to Trine, now a doctor and surgical resident, and father to an energetic and loveable 2 year old. I take anti-rejection medication each morning, get blood work every six weeks so to monitor my liver functions, and try to watch my diet. I like to tell my story a couple reasons: to give hope to those who have loved ones in the transplant community, and to spread the message that organ donation saves lives. People die every day waiting for organ transplants, and it’s so important that people become informed about organ donation. People can go to www.Donatelife.net for more information and to sign up to be an organ donor.
Read more from Blast here.
Photo: Provided by Author