Oregon 'dropped head syndrome' patient receives liver transplant

'Dropped head' patient receives transplant

A couple months ago, Oregonian Vicki Hope was preparing for the horrible reality that she would likely die in a matter of days.

The 57-year old was suffering from extreme liver failure and had been kept off the liver transplant list because of a rare spinal condition called “dropped head syndrome.”

Even her doctors admit, Hope didn’t have much time left. Because of dropped head syndrome, her chin was stuck to her chest, 24 hours a day, for several months. And because of that, liver transplant surgery to save her life was impossible. Anesthesia could not be administered with her head in that position. 

And then, a team of doctors at OHSU took over.

“I said if it doesn't happen pretty quick, I don't think I'm going to make it,” Hope said.

She's an example of just how precious life can be. And she’s tenacious and tough because she’s had to be. She’s been through the ringer.

“I didn't really think of it like that, I was just like, 'OK, this is the next step. I'm going to do this. I'm going to make it through. I'm too feisty for it not to work, and I'm determined.'”

When KGW first talked with Hope, her liver failure was severe. Her skin was yellowish, her eyes were jaundiced and she was in desperate need of a transplant. Dr. Khoi Than, a neurological surgeon, knew Hope could not even get on the transplant list in that condition.

“The anesthesiologist would not have been able to intubate her for transplant surgery,” he said.

So OHSU went to work. Dr. Than put Hope in traction and then he performed spinal fusion surgery to straighten her neck. That proved the first step to saving her life. Because with each minute of each day, her liver was failing and her life was slipping away.

Dr. Erin Maynard, a transplant surgeon at OHSU says time was crucial to Hope's survival.

“The likelihood of her surviving one year with her liver alone is essentially zero,” Maynard said.

In fact, the odds of Hope surviving another month were slim, at best. As the liver fails, water is retained in the body, mostly the lower extremities. Vicki had quickly gained 50 pounds on her small frame. She was immobile. Her skin was tearing and bruising.

Dr. Susan Orloff, the head of Abdominal Organ Transplant Surgery at OHSU, said it was almost time to prepare for the worst.

“She was in bad shape. She was in liver failure, she was jaundiced, she was weak, malnourished and she wasn't going to make it much longer.”

And then, the phone rang at Hope’s house. It was a random Thursday, April 20, at about 11:00pm. Hope says it was a call she’d been hoping for.

“'We have a liver for you.' I go, 'Whoa! OK!' I was just off the wall like that.”

Dr. Maynard credits Hope’s attitude.

“You know the fact that she's so tough is what got her through it.”

Within hours, Hope was in the hands of Maynard and OHSU’s team of transplant specialists. Maynard admits, Hope's transplant was complicated and lasted several hours. But she made it sound easy.

“I tell people I'm a plumber. So we take out the old liver and put the new one in," Maynard said. "There are four major connections between the liver that we need to sew back together again.”

Now, barely two months later, Hope's prognosis is a long, normal life.

And, as Dr. Orloff points out, it’s a reminder of how important organ donation is.

“You can save many lives, not only with the liver, but there’s two kidneys, there's a pancreas, there are two lungs, there’s a heart, there's skin, there are bones, there's eyes, I mean you can help so many people. And you can't bring that person back, other than giving life to others.”

For Hope, it’s gratitude for the organ donor, and for the team of doctors. “Thank you to whoever did that. If more people did that, more people could be saved.”

There are more than 800 people in Oregon waiting for transplants. And every day, people in Oregon and across the country die waiting for donated organs.

To become a donor in Oregon, you can sign up at Donate Life Northwest. Or you can contact the DMV and ask that the organ donation designation appear on your license.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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