May 10, 2022 | Local News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Chris and Todd Johnson stand outside St. Lawrence Parish in Philpot on April 29, 2022. On May 17, Todd Johnson will donate a lobe of his liver to his dad, Chris Johnson, who was diagnosed with hereditary cirrhosis. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

Son to donate liver lobe to dad, says God ‘definitely played a big part in this’

BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC

By providing “the right people at the right place at the right time,” Chris and Todd Johnson feel that “God’s had a hand” in the journey ultimately leading to Todd donating a lobe of his liver to his dad, Chris.

Chris, 60, belongs to St. Lawrence Parish in Philpot and works as the IT coordinator for the McRaith Catholic Center, the Diocese of Owensboro’s pastoral center.

In 2017 Chris was diagnosed with hereditary cirrhosis, a condition that permanently damages the liver and prevents it from working properly. Chris’s aunt had been diagnosed with hereditary cirrhosis as well.

Chris experienced esophageal varices (enlarged veins in the esophagus), which is common with cirrhosis. The esophageal varices in turn caused internal bleeding, and Chris began receiving routine surgeries every 3-6 months as part of his management plan with a gastroenterologist in Louisville.

Chris Johnson smiles at his son, Todd Johnson, outside St. Lawrence Parish in Philpot on April 29, 2022. On May 17, Todd Johnson will donate a lobe of his liver to his dad, Chris Johnson, who was diagnosed with hereditary cirrhosis. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

“It was going well until I had Covid,” said Chris, who tested positive for the virus in summer 2020 and ended up hospitalized with complications in Louisville. The virus caused blood clotting, including a blood clot that formed in Chris’s portal vein to his liver.

Though Chris ultimately recovered from COVID-19, the clot in his portal vein remained and continues to cause issues.

“The surgeon in Louisville told me ‘You’re a walking, talking time bomb. You’re going to bleed out one day in your sleep,’” said Chris.

Chris experienced another bleeding episode in April 2021. His daughter, a surgical tech in Owensboro, connected him with a surgeon she knew in Owensboro. The Owensboro doctor then connected Chris with Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

These connections led Chris to what will be his second chance at life.

Vanderbilt suggested he would be a possible candidate for a liver transplant, so Chris began the regime of tests to see if he would be a viable candidate.

Chris told The Western Kentucky Catholic that during this time he learned “a live donor would be possible” for his scenario. The liver is the only organ in the human body that can grow back to full size, so not only does a donated lobe eventually grow to full size within a recipient, but the donor’s liver also grows back.

All five of his children offered to be tested to see if they could provide a lobe of their liver to their dad.

His eldest son, Todd, was tested first – and in early 2022 they learned he was a match.

“I had a full day of testing, and had to take my labs twice,” said Todd. “Then they did a biopsy, just to make sure my liver was in good shape too.”

On May 10, 2022, Bishop William F. Medley anoints Chris Johnson in preparation for his May 17 surgery, during which Johnson’s son, Todd, will donate a lobe of his liver to his dad. RILEY GREIF | WKC

Todd, 32, who lives in Owensboro with his wife, Whitney, and their three daughters, said he is “excited to be able to do this for him.”

“It is very humbling that not just one, but all of my kids were willing to go through the testing and surgery for me,” said Chris.

The surgery will take place May 17 at Vanderbilt.

Todd’s surgery, as they remove the right lobe of his liver, will take at least eight hours. Chris’s surgery will take at least 12 hours as they remove his whole liver, his gallbladder, and transplant the new lobe.

“It takes that long because they will need to rebuild arteries and blood vessels,” said Chris.

This would not need to be done if it came from a deceased donor, he said, but on the flipside, “usually there is a better chance with a live donor because there is less chance of rejection.”

Chris said they will need to leave the clot in his portal vein because “it would be more complicated to remove, so they are monitoring that as well.”

Both Chris and Todd will be in the hospital for an extended period of time, and after being released from the hospital are required to stay locally in Nashville for a number of weeks as doctors monitor them.

This is to make sure there is “no rejection (of the donated lobe), no infections, make sure everything is healing properly as it should,” said Chris, whose tests will involve regular CT scans and lab work.

“I will be on anti-rejection drug (to prevent the new organ from being rejected) for the rest of my life twice a day, taken every 12 hours like clockwork,” he said.

Though the organs won’t be fully functional for up to a year, both of their livers should regrow to full size in eight to 12 weeks.

On May 10, 2022, Bishop William F. Medley anoints Chris Johnson in preparation for his May 17 surgery, during which Johnson’s son, Todd, will donate a lobe of his liver to his dad. RILEY GREIF | WKC

Todd added that he was told there is a 1% chance his liver will not regenerate “and then I’ll go to the top of the national donor list” but the risk is worth it for his dad.

While Chris and Todd have been supporting each other through this mutual process, and have received a lot of love from their friends and extended family, the doctors told them they also each needed a designated “support person.”

This support person will be the point of contact and know all the steps of the surgery process.

“That person has to be with us those first six weeks,” said Chris.

Their two support people?

“Our wives,” said Chris with a smile. Whitney, and Chris’s wife, Patsy, will stay with Todd and Chris at an Airbnb the family is renting for the duration of their time in Nashville.

“One of my other sons is a computer person too and can work remotely, so he will come and help,” said Chris. They also have family and friends in the Nashville area available to assist.

“It’s one of the benefits of having a large, extended family,” said Chris.

Chris said their friends and family network has been “very supportive. My aunt is a Sister of Charity of Nazareth so her whole community is praying.”

A family at St. Lawrence has a daughter who belongs to the Sisters of Life religious community, and Chris said that entire community is praying too.

On May 10, in preparation for the surgery, Bishop William F. Medley gave Chris the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick during staff Mass in the pastoral center’s chapel.

At the end of the Mass, Bishop Medley gave Chris a hug and told him to “come back soon, and come back well.”

Chris said he and his family are grateful to “the diocese, all my family, our churches. We’ve got a very wide range of people, the people we served in the military with… the support has been outstanding.”

Todd said God has “definitely played a big part in it.”

“I’d do anything for my family and God lined it up for me so I’d be able to make this decision,” he said.

Chris and Todd Johnson walk outside St. Lawrence Parish in Philpot on April 29, 2022. On May 17, Todd Johnson will donate a lobe of his liver to his dad, Chris Johnson, who was diagnosed with hereditary cirrhosis. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

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Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
Contributors |  Riley Greif, Tina Kasey
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