IU Health University Hospital

Transplant patient shares her story to help her heal

Patient Story

She was an alcoholic for years and now she is sharing her story to help others.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

She’s known throughout the transplant unit as “J.J.” When nurse Chet Maurer enters the room and says her name, Janice F. Harlan lights up. It’s not her first visit at IU Health University Hospital.

Diagnosed with hepatic cirrhosis Harlan received a liver transplant six months ago and is in the care of Dr. Marco Lacerda. She recently returned to IU Health for complications with her immune system. All things considered, she said she was feeling strong and was eager to share the story of her journey to transplant.

“That’s part of paying if forward. I got a second chance and if it can help anybody I want to do it,” said Harlan. “That was one of the ways I got into trouble. I kept everything private because I was scared and embarrassed.”

So private that the stomach pains – symptoms of alcohol abuse - eluded her primary care physician.

“I was treated for stomach problems for nearly two years because I wasn’t honest with my doctor. If she’d known, she could have helped me. When I was diagnosed with cirrhosis, I walked right in and apologized to her,” said Harlan. That was the first of many apologies – her husband of 33 years and her four siblings also heard the words: “I’m sorry.”

A resident of Anderson Harlan thinks she began drinking around the age of 16.

“It’s like if you are 16 and you pour that poison in you it doesn’t matter if you don’t drink every night – what matters is you are slowly pouring that into you and it builds up over time,” said Harlan, 58. “I started with beer and wine and ended up going to hard liquor. I was maintaining. I was a functioning alcoholic and then my job closed, I got depressed and drank more.”

In October 2018 she ended up in ICU. The withdrawal process was part of her stay and she said she woke up a physical mess.

“Then the idea was to treat me to see if my liver could come back a little and I could manage but my liver was shot,” said Harlan. That’s when she came to IU Health and met Dr. Lacerda. “He was an advocate for me and he also motivated me to become a candidate for transplant.”

At one point she was an animal lover who enjoyed hikes and trail walks and over time she weighed 300 pounds and could barely move. She also was at risk to sustain an organ transplant.

“I was gaining weight from alcohol and I didn’t realize how serious it was – how it could stop me from getting to the transplant stage,” said Harlan. “When you’re sick you have a lot of time to think. I knew I needed to make a change. When I was in the hospital the first time I called each of my siblings and told them I had made up my mind not to put them through any more pain. They have been so supportive and traveled to be with me.”

That was the beginning of her transformation. She knows her decision is a lifeline commitment. She’s joined a church and attends a support group.

“I’m being open because this hospital has been so good to me,” said Harlan. “Do you know how hard it is to accept an organ when you did this to yourself? The biggest thing I want others to know who are in this situation is: Admit it. Be transparent about it. Don’t hide it because it won’t go away and it will kill you.”

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