Brandon man gets the gift he was waiting for: a new liver

FOREST DALE — If Dave Rowden had filled out a Christmas list this year, it would’ve had only one thing on it — a new liver.
In 2005, Dave and his wife Sally were just going along in their lives like everyone else. Dave had retired from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department after 33 years as the area game warden. He had recently started working with Brandon Police Department as an officer. Sally was working at Rite-Aid. Their kids were grown and married with kids of their own.
One day, Rowden wasn’t feeling well and went home sick from the police department.
“I came home and vomited what looked like coffee grounds,” he said. “We immediately went to the emergency room.”
Rowden was 59 years old and had cirrhosis of the liver. He took care of himself, he didn’t have a drinking problem, and he didn’t have hepatitis C. He had non-alcoholic cirrhosis.
“There’s no reason for it,” he said. “No one can explain it.”
After a four-year struggle with a failing liver, cancer and a long wait on the transplant list, Rowden is back home with a new liver and a new lease on life, just in time for the holidays.
Dr. Dale Janik at Rutland Regional Medical Center told Rowden he had varices, swollen veins at the bottom of his esophagus near the stomach that bleed because of pressure in the liver. It’s a telltale sign of liver problems.
Janik referred Rowden to Dr. Frederic Gordon, doctor of liver transplantation at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Mass. It’s a premier, multi-disciplinary research center and teaching hospital that specializes in liver transplants, cancer treatment, heart and vascular disease, and cerebrovascular disease such as stroke and brain aneurysms.
Lahey is one of the top hospitals in the country, particularly for liver transplant, and fortunately for the Rowdens, only three hours away.
But despite the fact that the Rowdens had the Lahey Clinic as a source for treatment, the wait for a new liver can be a long one, and Rowden’s liver wasn’t cooperating. Even as it was failing, the benchmark calculation used to measure the need for a transplant wasn’t low enough. Rowden’s MELD score — Model of End-Stage Liver Disease score — remained very low as his health continued to deteriorate, keeping him at the very bottom of the transplant list.
“Even though he was getting sicker and sicker, his MELD score wasn’t changing and they don’t know why,” said Sally.
The liver is responsible for, among other things, removing toxins from the bloodstream. When those toxins are not removed, it affects the brain, and Rowden began to experience encephalopathy, which includes confusion, lack of energy, memory loss and insomnia.
“I’d start a sentence and couldn’t remember what I was saying,” Dave said.
“He couldn’t carry on a conversation,” Sally said. “It wasn’t bad in the beginning, but over the past year, it got worse. He would run into people and couldn’t put names to them.”
Thing was, Dave didn’t even know he was going through it. He lost whole days that to this day he can’t recall. He would take lactulose, a synthetic sugar that absorbs the toxins his liver could not process.
“And it’s the most horrible tasting stuff I’ve ever tasted,” Dave said, but it would bring him back to where he could carry on a conversation, at least for a while.
Dave finally had to leave the Brandon Police Department in the spring of 2008 because of his health, and was put on the transplant list the following September. Dr. Gordon told the Rowdens it was time to try and do a live liver transplant, since the wait for a donor would be much longer. The Rowdens’ daughter, Jennifer, offered to donate half of her liver to her father. The liver has the ability to regenerate and if part of a liver is transplanted, it can grow back to its full size.
Jennifer was a match, but there were many tests to complete to make sure the match was 100 percent true, and it was not to be.
“Somewhere in the testing process, they had to disqualify her because she was not a perfect match,” Sally said.
In September of this year, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor that had developed on Dave’s failing liver. While this may have seemed like devastating news, there was a silver lining
“The doctor said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news,’” Dave said. “‘The bad news is you’ve got cancer. The good news is it puts you right up at the top of the transplant list.’”
Chemotherapy treatments began immediately. A catheter was placed in the femoral artery of the thigh and the chemo drugs were injected directly into Dave’s liver.
“There was no losing hair, no nausea, it was great,” he said. But in the meantime, the race was on to find a new liver.
The Rowdens learned to be prepared after they got a call late one night about two weeks later. The doctor at the Lahey Clinic was on the line and asking how long it would take the Rowdens to get to the clinic.
“I think we found you a liver,” he said.
But he told the couple not to leave until he was sure about the liver being available.
“By 3 a.m., we hadn’t heard so we went to bed,” Sally said. “We called in the morning and it didn’t work out. It had been a time-sensitive liver. It had already been out of the body and went to someone on the list who lived closer.”
But the couple made sure they were never caught flat-footed from then on, and got prepared.
“We lived on pins and needles,” Sally said. “We always had our suitcases packed and in the car. We always did things together, and we never traveled very far from home is case they called.”
On Dec. 2, the Rowdens traveled to the Lahey Clinic for another round of chemo treatment. Sally’s sister, Lynn, made the trip with them because Sally hated the drive and Lynn didn’t mind. When they got there, Dave urged the girls to go Christmas shopping at a nearby mall while he went in for his treatment.
In the meantime, Dr. Isabel Zacharias, the staff hepatologist, told nurse manager Marty Hoar to call the Rowdens and tell them to get to the clinic. Dr. Mohamed Akoad, the head surgeon who had been searching on behalf of Dave Rowden, had found a liver that would match.
“You don’t have to call,” Hoar said. “They’re here.”
As they were getting ready to leave the mall, Sally’s cell phone rang.
“It was Marty. She said, ‘Get back here, I think we found a liver.’” Sally said, “I started jumping up and down in the middle of the mall.”
A hospital team flew by private plane to pick up Dave’s new liver and bring it back to the clinic in a cooler.
After a six-hour operation, Dave had a new liver. Everything went as well as it possibly could. The new liver started working immediately, and not a moment too soon.
“I was told that when they took the liver out, it was in much worse shape than they thought,” Dave said.
“They said we were lucky we got the liver when we did,” Sally added. “Six more months and he may not have made it.”
Eight days later, on Dec. 10, Dave came home and has been recuperating.
“I’m feeling good, and my numbers are good,” he said as he rested in his living room recliner. “There’s no sign of rejection and it’s been like that since I got out of surgery.”
He and Sally are counting every one of their blessings, and can’t say enough about the Lahey Clinic, which does roughly 60 liver transplants per year and is the number one transplant facility on the East Coast.
“They’re so friendly,” Dave said. “I have no complaints of any kind. As far as I’m concerned, they are the best.”
“We are so fortunate he was one of those 60,” Sally added.
Dave will start rehabilitation to get his strength back and doctors say he should be back to full health in six months. Then he’ll be able to spend time with his granddaughters Emma, 7, and Zoe, 3, as well as his new grandson, who is due in February.
There is another component to this story and without it, Dave Rowden would be dead. It’s the person who checked the donor box on their driver’s license and the family that made sure to respect their wishes and arranged to have the organs donated.
“If it wasn’t for the generosity of that family,” Sally said. “They gave my husband his life back.’
The rules around contacting donor families are very strict in order to maintain privacy. The Rowdens know a little about the donor and the family, but are not allowed to contact them. They can send a card to the Lahey Clinic, which will forward it to The Living Bank, the national donor and tissue registry, and they will contact the family.
“Then it’s up to the family whether they want to accept the card and contact us,” Sally said. “Our goal is to meet them someday. What a feeling to know they have a loved one living on in some way. It would be nice to let them know our prayers were answered.”
The holidays have been a difficult time for the Rowdens over the last few years. Sally’s sister Phyllis died of breast cancer in 2007, three days before Christmas. Ten days earlier, the family found out that Sally’s brother Ed had advanced lung cancer. He passed away in April. They lost their first grandson, who was stillborn, in February.
“Something good had to happen,” Sally said. “Christmases have not been so good, so instead of all the sadness we’ve had over the years, this is a good Christmas.”
Sally also said she feels like she really has her husband back, emotionally and physically.
“He got a new liver and a new life, for both of us,” she said. “It’s been tough, because I really haven’t had a husband for two years.”
The Rowdens will take it easy this Christmas, however. Their daughter and her family will come for Christmas Eve, but the family will just enjoy being home. Dave was asked if he had any requests for the holiday.
“I’ve got my present,” he said with a smile, his eyes glistening. “I’m all set.”

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