“L ife was thrilling and daunting all at once. For the first time, everything was going well. There was nothing to worry about. A new liver, younger than my actual years, occupied the spot of the old one. I was starting off with a clean slate. Yet no matter how hard I tried, the past was still fresh in my memory. I often wondered just how long the new liver would hold up. Dr. Starzl had said a lifetime. Nothing but good news. Then why did I have that familiar heart pounding every time I stretched out my arm for the lab technician to draw blood? Why was the process always upsetting? I should’ve been happy to get blood tests. It should’ve been a pleasure to find out that the numbers were excellent, but they scared me instead. A vague intuition interrupted my every thought. I continued to check within, hoping to detect a problem before it got out of hand.”
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This introspective moment less than a year after my first liver transplant foreshadowed things to come. I had already spent sixteen years prior struggling with poor health. The transplant was supposed to be a new, healthy beginning.
When I first fell ill at the age of twelve, I lived with my family in Munich, Germany, where I was born. At that age, you don’t really know what to make of symptoms that don’t seem threatening, or an illness that isn’t obvious. I entered college sad and self-loathing, a malfunctioning specimen of a human being. At least this is what I thought of myself. Drugs, the only way to numb constant fear and uncertainty about my health, gave me the confidence and social support I had always longed for. I also landed in the hospital.
During the three months I spent at the Barbara Clinic, I learned a lot about who I am and who I wanted out of life. For one, I wasn’t a glutton for punishment. I could be happy despite illness. The test would come when I returned to college. To my great relief, this second part of my education brought true friends, and for the first time, I fell in love.
Sam, thirty years my senior, became the most important person in my life, not only during our seven-year relationship, but also long after. Still seeking health while with Sam, I visited The Gerson Therapy, a holistic clinic in Mexico. On our arrival there, my girlfriend Julie and I where astonished to see nothing but terminally ill people hanging on to their hopes and dreams of a cure. Was I in the same predicament?
Mexico might have staved off liver disease for a short time, but eventually a transplant became inevitable. Back in 1984, Dr. Starzl, the pioneer of liver transplantation, performed the surgery. I had learned many years earlier, that as the patient, I have a right to question, discuss and understand whatever treatments I receive. In Dr. Starzl’s absence, I made my position clear to one of the other doctor’s on his team who thought otherwise.
A new liver meant a new life. I left the hospital and decided to settle in Los Angeles. I was still living at a hotel, when I fell in love and married Doron, the father of my two children. I had always hoped to have children and was elated when I found out I was expecting a second child so soon after the first. The way I saw it, this was a blessing beyond all my expectations. The way Doron and the doctors saw it, I was putting my life on the line. The birth of my second son caused an irreparable rift between Doron and me. We mutually decided to call it quits after four years of marriage, and two miracle children, who were brought into this world under very unique and precarious circumstances.
Much bigger problems loomed in my future than my failed marriage. This is where my opening quote becomes reality. Eventually, the dreaded blood tests showed that I was infected with hepatitis. Another transplant lay in my future, somewhere down the road. With this knowledge in the back of my mind, I set out to make my body as strong as possible.
I had always enjoyed exercising; but now I pushed my limits. I became an obsessive sportsperson despite a hip and knee replacement. Nothing was going to stop me from staying as healthy as I could, from pushing off the second transplant as long as I could.
Life was good. My new husband, Uli was everything I had always wanted in a man and a wonderful father to the boys. My ex-husband was part of our extended family. In fact, life was so good, that I began believing my own lie: that I really was healthy. I tried to conceive a child with my new husband. This crazy idea nearly killed me.
When the body is infected, so is the mind. They work together, one supporting the other, but also one deceiving the other. I was too blind to see that no matter how hard I exercised, no matter how many healers I visited, I was dying.
By the time I arrived in Miami for the second transplant, I was at death’s doorstep. The second liver came just in the nick of time. This would be a most harrowing experience for Uli and my doctor, Andreas Tzakis. A liver transplant is a difficult surgery under any circumstances, but even more so when the patient doesn’t awake. Suddenly, Dr. Tzakis found himself confronting one deadly complication after the other while I lay lifeless, in a coma.
Then, I awoke and immediately began fighting my way back to health. Or so I thought. I felt no pain while in the coma; now that I was awake, I was in agony. A fistula oozed pancreatic fluid. It took me three years to fully recuperate from the second liver transplant.
As time went on, our sons, Adam and Daniel grew into lovely young men. We traveled with Uli to wherever he was shooting his movie. His directing won him plenty of awards. I taught spinning at my gym and continued to exercise regularly.
In 2008, the year a young, unknown African American senator sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States, I was getting prepared for a partial knee replacement surgery. While lying on the gurney I found out that I was rejecting the second liver. Here I was, back at square one, back where I had begun in 1984, only older, wiser; and as ready as ever to tackle another daunting glitch in my path.
I can say with all certainty, that I am blessed. I have led a wonderfully rich life. Throughout my journey, I’ve never stopped learning and growing. My health concerns were made easier, thanks to friends and family, my husband and my children. Life: we can meet it with resistance, or we can embrace it with open arms no matter what is set before us. I chose the latter.