Bill's liver was failing due to hepatitis C

Bill Klahn with his 2016 Transplant Games medal
Bill Klahn won a medal in the 2016 Transplant Games. Photo courtesy of Iowa Donor Network.

“You’re dying.”

Those words nearly floored Bill Klahn following a routine blood test in the late 1990s.

“I said, ‘What?’ I was going to the gym every day, I was working 60 to 80 hours every week—working hard—and they told me my liver was hanging by a thread,” Bill says.

Bill, 64, of Cedar Rapids, was working at a site in Missouri treating radioactive waste when he needed a blood test for work. His liver enzymes were elevated, so the clinician referred him to another doctor, who did more blood tests and gave him the harrowing news.

“They told me I had hepatitis C, and I said, ‘You’re crazy. I do all this stuff,’” Bill remembers.

Bill says he was “too afraid to get treatment then,” so he let it go for several years. In 2003, he was working at a waste treatment site in Tennessee when he noticed swelling in his abdomen and feet. His coworkers started noticing other symptoms, too.“They said I was making bad decisions and saying stupid things,” he says. “Part of this disease is hepatic encephalopathy—you start to get dementia because of ammonia building up in your blood that affects your brain. Your liver is a filter for these fluids and toxins, but when your filter isn’t working, they start to affect other parts of your body.” 

A friend picked up Bill in Tennessee and drove him to St. Louis, near where he was living at the time in St. Peters, Missouri, and doctors there drained four liters of fluid from his abdomen. He stayed in the hospital in St. Louis for eight days, and doctors told him he’d need a liver transplant.

“Then my brother came and got me and brought me up to University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics,” Bill says.

Bill started a regular treatment program at UI Hospitals & Clinics with a goal of getting stabilized and ready for a liver transplant. At the same time, doctors continued to monitor Bill’s health and perform more tests.

“The last test I got was a CT scan, and they said I had three hepatomas in my liver—I had liver cancer,” Bill says. “That moved me higher on the list.”

Getting the call

About a month after learning he had cancer, Bill was notified that a donor liver was available. Though he’d known a transplant was coming, he was still a bit jarred by the idea.

“I knew I was dying without it, but I knew they were going to cut me in half and replace my liver,” Bill says. “I was scared to death.”

He got to the hospital, and the 14-hour surgery took place the next morning.

The procedure went well, and Bill wasted no time trying to get back to living.

“The occupational therapist came in and brought me a walker,” he says. After a few minutes “she said I didn’t need it because I kept moving it out of my way. I wanted to get better.”

Bill started on his recovery before he even had surgery.

“When the swelling began to go down, I started going to the gym,” he says. “I could barely lift 10 pounds over my head. Then I’d swim one day, do weights the next day, then swim again the following day. I worked up to two-workout days. I was in unbelievable shape for someone who was dying.”

After surgery, doctors and therapists alike told Bill his efforts to get and stay in shape were instrumental in his healing process. He was able to go home just four days after his transplant.

‘A completely different person’

The transplant did more than save Bill’s life. It also gave him a new purpose.

“I’m a completely different person now,” he says. “I’m an advocate for organ donation. People are dying every day because they need an organ, and I don’t see much sense in burying it in the ground.

“I also talk a lot about hepatitis C. I’ve done things with my doctor to get baby boomers tested for hepatitis C—we’re the ones that are at greater risk,” Bill says.

Though there’s no way of knowing for sure how he contracted the disease—hepatitis C can remain dormant for years before symptoms develop—Bill suspects he was exposed when he got a tattoo in the 1970s. He shares his message with others so they know not to wait if symptoms appear.

He’s also met with the family of his donor, Sarah, who was a 25-year-old mother of three when she died in 2003. He met Sarah’s mother first and then her children.

“It’s really hard when someone died and you’re alive, and then you meet that person’s mother,” Bill says, choking back emotion. “We had been in contact with Sarah’s mother—I cried all day when I got that first letter, thinking about this young woman.”

He maintained contact with Sarah’s mother, and then was surprised when Sarah’s oldest child sent him a friend request on Facebook earlier this year.

“Apparently he knew who I was, so he friended me and then sent me an invitation to his graduation party. I went to the party, and I met all three of Sarah’s kids. I gave each one of them one of my Transplant Games medals.

“Meeting them and giving them those medals was really something special,” Bill says.

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Cedar Rapids, Iowa