After his lifesaving liver transplant, Greg builds a new life with help from the mother of his donor

As a rare chronic liver disease took its toll on his body, Greg Murphy, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, lost 30 pounds in two years. His skin turned itchy and yellow. He had to make frequent trips to the bathroom.

The condition, diagnosed in 2011, worsened over seven years, leaving Greg fatigued and increasingly unable to function normally in his daily life as a father, middle school teacher, and high school wrestling coach.

That’s when his care team at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics put him on the waiting list for a new liver. Less than a year later, a donor was identified, and in October 2018, he had liver transplant surgery.

Today, under the care of Arvind Murali, MD, a UI gastroenterologist who specializes in transplant hepatology, Greg is back to living a normal life at age 35.

Greg Murphy and Kathy Mullen stand near Kathy's painting
Greg presents Kathy with a painting that commemorates the friendships made possible by the gift of life that Kathy’s son, Eric, shared.

Greg is thankful for the expert medical care that gave him back his life—a life that now includes a special friendship with the mother of the donor who made his lifesaving transplant procedure possible.

Everyone was wonderful. If you didn’t see my big scar, you wouldn’t know I had a transplant. I can swim with my kids and hug them and be the dad I want. I can be the teacher I want to be. The transplant changed my life completely.

— Greg Murphy

‘I was in denial’

Greg first learned he would someday need a liver transplant in 2011, three months before he married his wife, Brittany.

Frequent urination issues led him to seek medical care. Testing revealed primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a disease that blocks the bile ducts, causing bile to accumulate and damage the liver.

PSC progresses slowly. Greg knew he had it, but he couldn’t grasp the impact it would have on his life.

“I was told my liver would fail within the next 5, 10, 20 years,” Greg says. “I was in denial. I didn’t feel sick.”

Later Greg was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. UI gastroenterologist Frederick C. Johlin, MD, helped him manage both diseases and closely monitored his liver.

A life-changing phone call

Greg did his best to live with his condition, but nearly seven years after his diagnosis, weight loss and a round of new symptoms sent him to the hospital.

“I got sick with a bad pain in my side,” Greg says. “Dr. Johlin said I needed to get on the transplant waiting list right away.”

Greg’s gallbladder had become infected, so his care team put a drain in his side.

The wait for a donor liver began.

“It was a little scary, but the team gave me great information to prepare for a transplant,” Greg says.

In the fall of 2018, Greg received a late-night call from the UI Organ Transplant Center. A donor liver would soon be available.

“I felt a mix of excitement and nervousness,” Greg says. “My donor was on life support, and my immediate thought was I couldn’t be happy for myself because someone else is losing a life.”

On October 3, 2018, transplant surgeons gave Greg a new donor liver—and helped him begin the process of reconciling his feelings about receiving a donated organ.

“From the moment I met the transplant team, they went above and beyond to provide comfort and care,” he says.

The recovery went well, and Greg’s care team worked to decrease his risk of infection and of rejection of the donor liver.

When they detected signs of mild rejection, Murali and his colleagues knew how to adjust Greg’s medicine. Now his liver enzymes are normal, and he has returned to teaching and coaching.

“If you met him on the street, you would have no idea how sick he was previously,” Murali says.

Part of the healing process: new friendships

As Greg moved forward with his new life, he and his family met with his donor’s mother, Kathy Mullen. Kathy’s late son Eric was the donor of the liver that saved Greg’s life.

Since their first meeting, Greg and Kathy have formed a bond with two other patients who received Eric’s lung and kidney.

For Greg, the friendships that he has developed with Kathy and his fellow organ recipients are an important part of his renewed life and a celebration of the positive impact that organ donation has on so many lives.

“We’re like family,” Greg says. “We talk all the time. It’s a good healing process.”

To commemorate Eric’s gift, Greg and the other organ recipients recently presented Kathy with a painting that shows the four friends standing together, with Eric in the sky above them.

“This whole experience has been an incredible blessing,” Greg says, “meeting my donor’s mother and the amazing doctors and nurses at UI Hospitals & Clinics.”

Cedar Rapids, Iowa