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Liver Transplant Recipient Thankful for Life Saving Care and Organ Donation

This Thanksgiving when liver transplant recipient, Joe Gammon, reflects on the many things he is thankful for, the gift of life and the team that made it possible will undoubtedly be on his mind. It’s been just over a year since, 56 year-old North Texan, Joe Gammon's life changed forever.

As a former Ranger qualified US Army Officer who served more than 10 years and participated in several tours in the Middle East, Joe has experienced some very challenging situations. But fighting for his life, with his family at his side, has been the hardest thing he’s ever done.

“When I think back to this time last year, how one day he was fine and the next he was in the emergency room, I can hardly believe how quickly our lives changed that day,” says his wife, Michelle.

Emergency Diagnosis

September 8, 2022, started out like a normal day for Joe and Michelle, but before the morning was over, Michelle was rushing Joe to the nearest hospital emergency department after he started vomiting blood.

Doctors ran numerous tests and scans looking for the source of the bleeding. When they discovered it was his liver, Joe ended up undergoing emergency surgery to cauterize the bleeding.

Once he was stable, doctors explained to him and Michelle that he was suffering from acute liver failure due to alcoholic hepatitis. This condition is an acute form of liver disease with variable severity and develops in patients who usually have a history of prolonged alcohol abuse. It can also develop suddenly due to recent increased alcohol consumption as it did in Joe’s case.

“We were shocked beyond belief,” says Joe. “We couldn’t comprehend how my liver could be shutting down so suddenly.”

Joe was diagnosed with a fatty liver in his 20s, however he always maintained an active lifestyle with lots of running and golf. He was a social drinker, but admits that over the last four years, especially during the pandemic shutdowns, he drank much more heavily.

“I was never warned that alcohol consumption on top of having a fatty liver could ever lead to or accelerate end stage liver disease, and so quickly as mine did,” says Joe.

Needing a liver specialist

A few weeks after being admitted, Joe was released to recover at home and put on a treatment plan to try and manage his symptoms. Yet over the next couple of months, Joe spent more time in the hospital than out due to complications from hepatic encephalopathy, a common symptom of liver failure.

“Hepatic encephalopathy is a temporary deterioration of brain function that occurs in people with chronic, severe liver disease,” explains Alejandro Mejia, MD, transplant surgeon and executive program director of organ transplantation at The Liver Institute and on the medical staff at Methodist Dallas Medical Center (MDMC). “When the liver is unable to remove toxins from the blood they can accumulate in the bloodstream and ultimately the brain. Symptoms often include confusion, personality changes, disorientation, and a lowered level of consciousness.”

With Joe’s health quickly deteriorating, Michelle became desperate to find Joe the help he needed before it was too late. “The doctors at this local hospital did all they could, but when it became clear that Joe’s condition was rapidly worsening, they encouraged me to find a specialized liver center,” says Michelle.

Her search led her to The Liver Institute at Methodist Dallas Medical Center where she contacted Maisha Barnes, MD, transplant hepatologist and gastroenterologist on the medical staff at MDMC.

“I chose The Liver Institute at Methodist Dallas Medical Center because it was rated as a Center of Excellence and Dr. Maisha Barnes had incredibly positive reviews,” she says.

A higher level of care

Joe and Michelle met with Dr. Maisha Barnes on November 8, 2022, to discuss his situation and make a plan.

“Dr. Barnes was so thorough, patient and very knowledgeable,” says Joe. “We left that appointment feeling encouraged and hopeful for the first time in months. She suggested some medication and dietary changes that within a short time were immediately more successful.”

Sadly, the positive trajectory didn’t last. A few weeks later, during the week of Thanksgiving, Joe was back in the hospital with a life-threatening case of exceptionally high ammonia which induced a seizure which led to a coma.

“He was so sick they put him on a ventilator for five days in the hopes that his body could recover,” says Michelle. “The kids and I were so scared that Joe wasn’t going to make it so I decided to call Dr. Barnes to let her know what was happening.”

Dr. Barnes immediately initiated a middle-of-the-night hospital transfer to get Joe admitted to Methodist Dallas.

“As soon as the ambulance pulled up at Methodist Dallas I was greeted by an entire group of nurses and medical staff ready to get me admitted,” says Joe. “It was incredible to see that regardless of the time of night, there was a team ready for my arrival.”

Transplant to save his life

Dr. Barnes took over Joe’s care with the goal of getting his health stabilized so that he could get listed for a liver transplant.

“There were limitations in the care that could have been given prior to Joe coming to The Liver Institute,” explains Dr. Barnes. “Part of that is due to common misconceptions in managing patients with fatty liver and advanced liver disease, especially patients like Joe who are dealing with hepatic encephalopathy.”

Her efforts were successful. On March 7, 2023, Joe was officially listed on the transplant waiting list. Given that his MELD score was high (which meant his chances of surviving his disease in the next three months were low) Joe and Michelle prayed and hoped for a match soon.

On May 13, 2023, their prayers were answered when they got the call that a match had been found. Within hours, Joe was being prepared for transplant surgery by Dr. Mejia and his team.

“Joe had an uncomplicated transplantation procedure that went very well,” says Dr. Mejia. “He spent the standard 10 days recovering in our transplant unit, which has specially trained nurses to care for transplant patients. Joe’s story is encouraging because he was an excellent patient after his transplant, very motivated to get well. Both he and Michelle were dedicated and proactive in his health journey from start to finish.”

Wish they had known…

It’s been four months since his transplant and Joe is finally back to feeling healthy. He and Michelle have been eager to share his story in hopes that others may gain valuable information.

“I never knew that having fatty liver disease, even a mild level like mine, meant that I should not drink alcohol,” says Joe. “If I had known that I would have abstained from alcohol completely as I do now. I think it’s important for anyone with elevated liver enzymes to know that there is a risk in drinking alcohol. It could lead to a sudden change in liver function like it did for me. Also, make sure you are getting an annual wellness exam that includes bloodwork."

The last piece of advice they’d like others to know is that seeking specialized care sooner rather than later can be key to the most positive outcome like it was for Joe.

“Finding The Liver Institute saved my life,” says Joe. “We had an incredible transplant coordinator and received the highest level of care from every member of the transplant care team. And like all organ recipients, I am forever grateful to my organ donor.”

A message to Joe and Michelle from the team at The Liver Institute and The Transplant Institute at Methodist Dallas Medical Center

Thank you for trusting us to be your care provider. We are truly honored to be apart of your life journey. The transplant community is a family like no other, we will always be here for you. 

Joe & Dr. Barnes, participating in the 29th annual Phil Berry Transplant Tournament hosted by the Southwest Transplant Alliance and The Liver Institute at Methodist Dallas Medical Center to provide critical financial relief to transplant recipients and their families.

Just months after his transplant, Joe and wife, Michelle, celebrate the gift of life by wearing green and "blessed" wristband