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Christmas Eve marks this patient’s transplant anniversary

IU Health University Hospital

Christmas Eve marks this patient’s transplant anniversary

Thanks to an organ donor, Christmas will look a lot different for this Boone County resident.

By TJ Banes, IU Health Senior Journalist,

There’s a picture of Ernie Verbarg laying in a hospital bed wearing a Santa cap. He’s smiling. It’s Christmas Day and he’s just received a new liver. That was one year ago.

Last Christmas Eve, Verbarg was in the care of Dr. Chandrashekhar Kubal as he received a liver transplant. The unusual holiday “gift” came after more than 20 years with a diagnosis of a rare disease. Verbarg went through the steps to apply for life insurance - including a thorough exam and blood work. He felt fine, but the blood work determined he had primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). The rare liver disease damages the bile ducts inside and outside the liver.

Ernie Verbarg in front of christmas tree

As time went by, his symptoms became more pronounced - fatigue, itching and hospitalizations with cholangitis attacks. About 14 years ago, he became a patient of IU Health and knew he would eventually need a liver transplant. He started testing last March and was on the donor list the next month.

IU Health has completed more than 180 adult and pediatric liver transplants so far this year, surpassing the previous highest number in the history of the program.

“I feel absolutely fantastic and I shouldn’t be here. They said I wouldn’t have made it to January without a transplant,” said Verbarg. In November, he and his wife, Pam, celebrated 35 years of marriage, Verbarg’s 60th birthday, and the one-year of his transplant with a trip to Hawaii.

Ernie Verbarg and wife Pam

“I can’t say enough about my care at IU Health. The transplant team was fantastic,” said Verbarg who recently delivered holiday goodies to his IU Health caregivers.

For years Verbarg worked as a meat cutter in major grocery stores. Before his transplant he operated a restaurant that specialized in barbecue. When his health took a turn for the worse, he had to close his restaurant. Since transplant, he has moved his barbecue business to a commercial kitchen in his Lebanon, Ind. home. He is back catering private events and selling his meats from a food trailer.

At this year’s Indiana State Fair “Backyard BBQ Cook Off,” Verbarg’s ribs, pork, and chicken entries won first place. He was awarded Overall Grand Champion for his BBQ goodness. His booth at the August event was decorated in green to promote “Donate Life,” and raise awareness for organ donation.

“This transplant has opened up a whole new network of people for me. I’ve met people who have been through it and people who have helped others go through it,” said Verbarg. In the past year he traveled to a conference in Las Vegas, Nev. to learn more about PSC and living with a new liver. He also participates in a transplant support group through IU Health that meets virtually.

“There were 200 people at the conference in Las Vegas and 30 were post transplant. I even met someone who had Dr. Kubal as their surgeon,” said Verbarg. “I feel like I have been very lucky in the last year - no major setbacks and I was able to go on with my life. I was hanging drywall in my new kitchen right after transplant and I’m able to enjoy the things I love - auto racing, traveling and my two labs. This is going to be a great Christmas.”

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