A Life-saving Gift: Maria’s Story

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A Life-saving Gift: Maria’s Story

At 23, Maria had four young kids. Family life was busy and to unwind, she and her husband enjoyed a drink or two. Maria particularly enjoyed a wine cooler, and once the kids were out of the baby stage, the newly found freedom was refreshing. She felt good, and alcohol made her feel even better.

Maria had her fifth child, and over the years she moved from wine coolers to beer. When beer lost its buzz, she turned to liquor.

Maria’s four oldest children eventually moved out of the home. She started to drink more to help relieve the boredom when her youngest daughter was at school, but Maria felt herself spiraling out of control. She had no idea that starting with the occasional wine cooler would escalate the way it did.

After 15 years of drinking, Maria was unwell. Her adult children weren’t enjoying their visits and her husband was also drinking heavily. Maria’s father had died of an alcohol-related illness, and she became increasingly concerned that she was on the same path.

Maria entered inpatient rehabilitation a couple of times to get control of her drinking, but she would continually return to alcohol.

Maria became a regular in the Emergency Room because of anxiety attacks. Then they escalated to full-on panic attacks and as she was so anemic, she needed blood transfusions. Maria’s life was a haze of drinking from morning to night, and visits to the ER. Hangovers were no longer relieved by more alcohol, and any time she wasn’t drinking, Maria shook so badly she couldn’t feed herself. Her body needed alcohol to be able to function, but it was devastating her body and her life.

“I knew there was nothing good ahead of me,” she said.

Maria desperately wanted change, but it came in the least expected way.

On the way to Kansas with her husband to celebrate their daughter's birthday, Maria started vomiting blood. She was already unable to walk without assistance, as she was so weak, and with the new symptom, Maria knew something was terribly wrong.

Maria was admitted to a hospital in Kansas for two weeks. Her skin was orange, and her eyes were yellow.

“I knew this was it,” Maria recalls. “I saw my dad go through this step by step and I knew this was it for me.”

Maria’s husband was so terrified of what was happening to his wife that he gave up drinking that day.

Maria was discharged after two weeks with instructions to go back to Oklahoma and follow up with her family doctor. The doctor ran a variety of blood tests and called her the same night, insisting she go to ER immediately. Maria was so weak she could barely get out of bed, but when the doctor told her that her liver was severely damaged and her heart could give out at any moment due to the years of heavy alcohol consumption, she acted quickly.

“I told my oldest daughter to make sure she looked after her sister, as I knew I wasn’t going to be coming home. I knew I wouldn’t make it out of the hospital. I took one last look around my house, and left, knowing that what had happened to my dad was now happening to me.”

Maria’s local hospital in the Oklahoma Panhandle admitted her, and she was not expected to survive. She was in a great deal of pain — her liver and kidneys had failed, and her body was swollen.

After two weeks, Maria’s son and his girlfriend started looking for another hospital in Oklahoma that could offer more specialized care as Maria continued to decline. A nurse recommended OU Health University of Oklahoma Medical Center.

Maria arrived at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center on September 19, 2021, under the care of liver transplant expert, Narendra Battula, M.D., FRCS. She was told that her liver was no longer healthy and that her other organs were failing, and this meant she was very likely to die without immediate action. The specialist multidisciplinary team which included surgical intensive care transplant surgeons, hepatologists, nephrologists, nurse coordinators, pharmacists, dietitians, social workers, benefits navigators, and the transplant addiction psychology/psychiatry team, immediately started organ failure treatment. The team initiated an urgent and rigorous process to evaluate Maria for suitability for a liver transplant, as it was the only possible life-saving treatment.

“Dr. Battula was very direct. He told me that if they couldn’t find a liver quickly for me, I wouldn’t make it,” said Maria.

After stabilizing and satisfactory completion of the required assessments, Maria was placed on a UNOS liver transplant waitlist. Thankfully, a liver was donated two days later, and Maria was taken straight to the operating room for a transplant.

“The Transplant and ICU team worked together implementing current scientific guidelines and strategies to provide organ support, and a liver transplant as a life-saving treatment,” said Dr. Battula.

Maria’s transplant surgery went smoothly. As she had been sick for so long, Maria was very underweight, couldn’t walk, and was on dialysis for kidney damage. After a month in the hospital, Maria was transferred to a rehabilitation unit for physical therapy.

By December 2021, three months after the liver transplant, Maria felt stronger. With the help of a walker, she could get out of bed and walk around. Her appetite started to increase, and she focused on gaining some weight and energy.

Almost two years later, life couldn’t be more different for Maria.

“I can’t believe it — this is real life,” said Maria. “I’m sober, my family actually wants to be around me now. I work full-time, and I feel really good. I’m 45 and I hope I have many years ahead of me. The whole OU Health team was so good to me.”

“Maria was a great patient, and we are so happy to see her healthy and appreciate the gift of life,” Dr. Battula said. “The vision of OU Health Transplant team is to provide evidence-based, multi-disciplinary care to complex liver patients. As an academic health center, we have the opportunity to successfully care for the sickest liver patients in the state of Oklahoma and beyond.”

Learn more about life-saving organ transplant services or the living donor program at OU Health.