August 30, 2019
In May 2003, Andy thought he had a gall bladder problem. His internist agreed, but scheduled a sonogram just to be sure. Andy's gall bladder was fine, but spots on his liver indicated a more serious problem.
Andy had never had any health issues, "not even a cavity," he says. "Then I came up with the weirdest cancer possible." A biopsy confirmed he had epithelioid hemangioendothelioma. This extremely rare type of liver cancer causes tumors in the lining of the blood vessels of the liver.
Andy’s sister recommended a major cancer center in Houston. "And they basically said, 'Good luck.' There was nothing they could do for me. That wasn't real encouraging," he says.
Andy began showing signs of liver failure. His oncologist referred him to The University of Kansas Health System to see if a liver transplant was an option. Because the cancer was contained in his liver, transplant specialists at the health system determined Andy would be a good transplant candidate and that a transplant might cure him.
Andy received his liver transplant in September 2003, after only 12 days on the waiting list. At the time, his liver weighed 16 pounds. Normal human livers weigh about 4 pounds.
"I was the first cancer patient of my type to be treated at the hospital," Andy says. In fact, Andy may have been one of the first of only a handful of people with this particular kind of cancer who are treated by transplant. In 2003, Andy says there were approximately 200 reported cases worldwide of this type of cancer.
"It was the rarest of rare cancers," explains Andy. "I had the right kind of cancer. It's a strange thing to say but it's true. I received the best medical care I could possibly dream of. I never could have imagined that I would ever live this long, much less be this healthy and I have a completely clean bill of health.
"I love being alive. I have an enhanced appreciation for life because I've been close to not living. I feel incredibly fortunate, and the fact that I'm as healthy as I can possibly be is just icing on the cake."
I love being alive. I have an enhanced appreciation for life because I've been close to not living. I'm an incredibly fortunate guy. – Andy DonnellyLiver transplant recipient
Liver transplant leads to new career
Not only did Andy get a new liver, he found a new career. For about 15 years before his cancer diagnosis, Andy had worked for a liquor distributor. But surviving liver cancer and receiving a transplant gave him a new perspective on life. After he and his wife had a baby, Andy decided to become a stay-at-home dad. "That's the best gig I've ever had. I have a son at home who wouldn't be here if I hadn't had a transplant."
Andy had also been volunteering for Gift of Life, a Kansas City-based organization that works to educate the community about the critical need for organ and tissue donation. In 2008, Gift of Life hired Andy to manage its Life Mentors program.
Life Mentors are successful recipients who pair up with patients facing the same types of transplants. Andy meets with liver transplant patients at The University of Kansas Health System.
"I provide hope and encouragement at a difficult time because most people don't know what to expect with a liver transplant, or any kind of transplant," he says.
Andy feels very fortunate to be involved with Life Mentors. "It's one of the few opportunities in the transplant community for someone without a medical background to make a difference in the world."