New liver brings a buoyancy to life

Bill Liver Transplant Iowa

After weeks of waiting on the transplant list, Bill Klahn had a rush of fear, excitement, and a little whimsy when his pager went off, signaling that an organ had arrived and he needed to hurry to University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics.

When the receptionist at the hospital front desk asked if she could help him, the first words out of Bill's mouth were: "Yeah, I'd like a liver. Hold the onions."

In the years since receiving his new liver, it's been the 60-year-old's mission to continue putting smiles on the faces of people around him.

"I just want to have fun," Bill says. "For a year and a half, I thought I was going to die. I got a second chance at life, and I'm not going to be serious and stern."

Bill endured end-stage liver disease, complicated by three large cancerous tumors. His condition placed him at the top of the national transplant list, a sign of the urgency of his transplant. It was a devastating condition for anyone to find themselves in, let alone someone who was a competitive swimmer, mountain biker, scuba diver, and climber.

During the difficult time between diagnosis and transplant, Bill turned to exercise, he says, to keep himself sane.

"That's why I did it with a vengeance," he says. "Exercise helps me as much, if not more, mentally than physically. If I don't work out, I get depressed."

UI transplant psychologist Jody Jones and her colleagues work tirelessly with transplant patients at each stage of the transplant process, helping them face the realities and uncertainties of an organ transplant.

“Bill’s example of turning to exercise as a source of mental support was an ideal way of coping with this major life change,” Jody says. “Much of our work with transplant patients is to help them go from those near-death circumstances to finding a new purpose for their lives. A transplant surgery is unlike any other; it is truly transformative.”

Jody adds that her team's work is both fulfilling and challenging, and that UI Hospitals & Clinics transplant patients can count on one of the best transplant support programs in the country.

"Offering emotional support for our patients isn’t only my job, as a psychologist,” Jody says. "Our patients soon realize that each and every member of our transplant teams is committed to assuring a complete recovery, physically and emotionally."

Today, exercise is part of Bill's regimen and his profession. He works part-time as a personal trainer at an Iowa City health club, helping individuals of all ability levels achieve their fitness goals.

His own post-transplant accomplishments are on par with his pre-transplant form. His participation in several World Transplant Games events have yielded a trophy case of medals for the swimming sprint events that he loves.

After each success, Bill takes time to reflect on his gift of new life and the donor whose sudden death made his extended life possible.

The donor was Sarah, a 25-year-old mother of three who died quickly and unexpectedly from a blood vessel rupture in her brain.

Sarah's family was open to the idea of finding out who had received Sarah's liver, when Bill made the inquiry a year or so after his transplant.

Bill recalls that events leading up to that first meeting were fraught with emotion. He cried for an entire day, he says, when he received a picture of Sarah.

"I was consumed with guilt that I got to live and she didn't," he says.

"Meeting her family was real powerful. My life is a tribute to her, and that's how it's supposed to be."