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Organ Transplant

April 04, 2018


Last year, Angela Hepler gave the best gift ever to her co-worker, Denny Charles.  She gave him a second chance at life by donating a part of her liver to him.

Hepler is a certified registered nurse anesthetist, or CRNA, and Charles is a registered nurse. They work side-by-side in the Operating Room at Penn Highlands DuBois. 

Twenty years ago, Charles was diagnosed with a fatty liver that progressed to NASH, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. With NASH, the liver is inflamed and there is liver cell damage along with fat in the liver.
In late 2016, a surprise in his blood work showed pancytopenia- a medical condition in which there is a reduction in the number of red and white blood cells, and platelets. An ultrasound of the abdomen found a cancer mass, a tumor, on the liver. A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis of cancer.

Because of the original liver disease, removing a section of liver was not possible. Charles needed a liver transplant.  Although he waited for a liver from an organ donor, he kept getting sicker. And if the tumor grew, it could bump him off the transplant list.

That’s when his co-worker stepped in.  Hepler said she saw her friend’s father go through a double-lung transplant and almost not make it. “I wanted to keep that from happening to Denny,” she said.

On April 27, 2017, the transplant took place.

“The procedure went as well as it possibly could have.  Both Denny and I did great!” Hepler said.

Denny tires easily which is common for up to a year after a transplant. But he swims every day at the DuBois Area YMCA and was back to work three months after the surgery.

He goes to regular appointments in Pittsburgh every three months and will have a liver biopsy in mid-April. If all is well, he won’t have to go back for six months and they will take him off some of his medications.

Denny has no real restrictions except to stay away from sick people and food buffets due to bacteria, and no grapefruit. “That's about it,” he said.

“It has been a challenging year,” Randa Charles, Denny’s wife, said. “But compared to last year, we are in such a better place. When Denny was first diagnosed with the liver cancer, I thought it was a death sentence, but now we have a very hopeful future. I was more worried for Angie during the surgery. Once I knew she was ok I was so happy.”

How is Hepler feeling? “I feel great!” she said. “Other than some numbness near the scar, I feel no different than I did before the surgery.”

“I was very tired mostly, for the first 3-5 weeks,” she said, and slept a lot. “Most of the discomfort was gone by the third or fourth week.” Today, she has no restrictions for what she can and cannot do.

“Angie has changed our lives,” Randa Charles said. “She is the most giving and generous person I know. Angie is our angel. We have gained a lifelong friend in her and her husband, Troy.”

Denny is planning on retiring at the end of April so he is looking forward to spending time with his daughter and grandson. “I can’t even express in words how much live-liver donation is so important and life changing. I have been in health care for 30 years and didn't know anything about it.  I am so glad we can share our story and get the word out there.”

“It has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of my life, only second to the births of my two daughters,” Hepler said. “The recovery was worth every second for the opportunity to do something like this for Denny.  I don't have any regrets and would do it over again in an instant.”

She reminds others that “Every single day, people die while waiting on the organ transplant list; most of us cannot begin to imagine how difficult this must be, but we do have the ability to change it!  We as donors can save lives, and although the decision to donate a part of yourself to another is personal and complex, the reward is indescribable.”

Each day, there are nearly 121,000 men, women and children waiting for organ transplants in the U.S. and 250,000 awaiting tissue and cornea transplant. That is why Penn Highlands Healthcare and other hospitals celebrate April as National Donate Life Month. They celebrate the success stories and, along with CORE, encourage people to become organ donors.

CORE is the Center for Organ Recovery & Education. It is one of 58 federally designated not-for-profit organ procurement organizations in the United States. It works closely with donor families and designated health care professionals to deliver the gift of hope by coordinating the surgical recovery of organs, tissues and corneas for transplantation. CORE also helps with the computerized matching of donated organs, tissues and corneas with those who need them. 

With headquarters in Pittsburgh and an office in Charleston, W. Va., CORE oversees a region of 155 hospitals, including Penn Highlands Brookville, Penn Highlands Clearfield, Penn Highlands DuBois and Penn Highlands Elk.

Though transplants are not done at Penn Highlands Healthcare, people who need organ transplants are seen by physicians and staff regularly here.

“The role of the hospitals has never been more important than now with so many people waiting for transplants,” Debra Thomas, RN, chief nursing officer at PH Brookville and Amy Powell, RN, PH Brookville Emergency Department supervisor and both liaisons to CORE at PH Brookville, said.  “According to statistics, At least 18 people will die each day without receiving an organ transplant, including two from our CORE Service area.” 

“By donating organs, one individual can help up to eight people, while tissue donors can improve the lives of up to 50 people,” Barbara Barnett, RN, nursing supervisor of PH DuBois, said. “Each day, a million people await tissue and cornea transplants, while every 10 minutes someone new is added to the organ list.”

 “Of the 2.2 million people who die each year, only approximately 2 percent of them are able to be organ donors,” Lisa Rorabaugh, director of Patient Safety, Risk Management and Customer Service, CORE liaison and interim director of nursing, at PH Clearfield, said.

Donors can be people who have made the decision to donate their organs after they pass or people who donate an organ – such as liver or kidney – while they are alive and well,” Rhonda Chilson, RN, director of Quality and Infection Control, and CORE liaison, at PH Elk said.

To learn more about organ donation, Penn Highlands encourages you to go to www.core.org or to sign up to become a donor, go to www.registerme.org.

You can also celebrate Blue and Green Day on Friday, April 13, to show your support for organ donation. Wear blue and green to work, offer blue and green treats to friends or decorate with blue and green. Those who participate are welcome to post their photos on the Penn Highlands Healthcare Facebook page with #DonateLifeMonth.