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A gift of love: Wife saves husband’s life through organ donation

As a successful practicing attorney, father of two young children and supportive husband, Joel Elliott is quite accustomed to the on-the-go lifestyle. So much so that his wife Cristy explains, “He is the gas, I am the brake.”

With 18 years of marriage down and many more to go, the couple did not let the bearing of bad news — a liver disease diagnosis — ruin their speed.

Sharing his story in hopes of inspiring others and raising awareness about liver disease and the lifesaving power of organ donation, Joel recalls the day his journey to a second shot at life began.

Related: 14 things you should know about liver disease

Around 10 years ago, Joel stood in a courtroom before a judge and jury panel suddenly starry-eyed and light-headed. Tightly gripping onto the witness stand for balance, he knew something internally was not adding up. Minutes after excusing himself, splashing some water on his face and returning, he was being transported in an ambulance to a nearby hospital.

After an overnight stay in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), doctors ruled out the possibility that he had suffered a heart attack. Still, beyond his blood pressure skyrocketing, there were two more areas of concern on the rise — sleep apnea and a fatty liver disease.

Joel went home with medication, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, and a new diet and exercise regimen in tow. But he wondered to himself, was it really that big a deal?

Despite his best efforts throughout the next few years, Joel struggled.

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“I did everything for everything else. I didn’t do anything for the fatty liver,” he said.

“While alcohol is the leading cause of cirrhosis, even teetotalers can develop the condition,” Joel said.

About two years ago, he began to recognize a serious shift in how he felt physically. Constantly drained and sluggish, his weight was on the rapid decline, even to the point of losing muscle.

Together, Joel and Cristy decided to make an appointment with an internist to run tests and hopefully get some answers. The bad news? The fatty liver had turned into cirrhosis — the unrepairable scarring of the liver. Someone diagnosed with cirrhosis is 40 times more likely to develop liver cancer.

A common misconception about fatty liver disease is that it’s directly related to alcohol abuse. However, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is simply a build-up of extra fat in liver cells.

“While alcohol is the leading cause of cirrhosis, even teetotalers can develop the condition,” Joel said.

Luckily, Robert Rahimi, MD, transplant hepatologist at Baylor University Medical Center, would confidently lead the Elliotts through the next steps of their journey. Without hesitation, he placed Joel on the transplant list in April 2019.

“Not only are you saving the life of the recipient, but you are also freeing up another donated organ to be donated to somebody else in need, essentially saving two lives,” Cristy said.

The caveat: Joel was considered too healthy and carried the universal, O positive blood type. This meant available donated organs would go to patients in more dire condition. It could be a long wait for Joel.

The good news? Cristy, who learned about living donor liver transplant through her mother, selflessly volunteered to save her husband’s life.

“Not only are you saving the life of the recipient, but you are also freeing up another donated organ to be donated to somebody else in need, essentially saving two lives,” she said.

Many tests and procedures later, she was notified that her liver was large enough to proceed with the transplant and that she too, was O positive. A match made in heaven! The surgery was scheduled immediately.

Reminiscing on the emotions that came over him when he learned that his wife would donate 60 percent of her liver, Joel said, “She was happy, and I was scared.”

During the operation, also referred to as a hepatectomy, surgeons take the donor’s larger portion of the two lobes and place it in the recipient. Both livers will then regenerate back to full size on their own.

Related: How my son saved my life by donating his liver

After Cristy’s 6-hour surgery and Joel’s 12-hour surgery, they recovered alongside their two children — Jacob, 15, and Elise, 12 — who both offered unwavering love and support to their parents. Jacob, who has his learner’s permit, even offered to drive his parents to and from their appointments, sneaking in some practice for his driving test.

Through the physical and emotional ups and downs of life, one thing remains steady for the Elliotts — family. Joel’s health has shifted gears for the better thanks to his wife, and they now aspire to positively impact others going through a similar situation. Now big believers in the power of organ donation, they have vowed to use their story to encourage more people to become organ donors.

Just like Cristy, you too could save a life. Become a living donor today.

About the author

Sara Zuniga
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Sara Zuniga is a marketing communications intern with Baylor Scott and White Health. A Texas native and graduate of Southern Methodist University, she is passionate about all things wellness and strives to contribute impactful stories that reach our community and beyond.

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A gift of love: Wife saves husband’s life through organ donation