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He needed a liver; His niece was the giver

IU Health University Hospital

He needed a liver; His niece was the giver

She didn’t dream she’d be a match. She was his niece by marriage. But when the results came back, Toni Cahill was ready to be a living donor.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes,

At his worst, Joseph “O.J.” Johnson was disoriented. He was in extreme pain and the build up of fluids required numerous trips a week to the hospital for paracentesis.

Three years ago, he was diagnosed with Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). More than 3 million cases are diagnosed a year of the disease that causes fatigue, pain, and over time, liver damage.

For Johnson, a resident of Bloomfield, Ind. that meant a long journey to liver transplant.

“He was on more medications than I can remember,” said his wife of 33 years, Sharon. Johnson developed encephalopathy, caused by toxins in his blood and was hospitalized in Louisville. That hospitalization was one of many. He underwent a procedure for a Transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt to treat fluid build up. Sometimes three to four days a week he had as much as seven liters drained from his abdomen.

When the family began considering transplant, they learned that Johnson was in what they call a “catch-22” situation. He had heart complications. He needed a new liver but a transplant was complicated because his heart was compromised.

That’s when they learned about IU Health’s living liver donor program.

Living liver transplantation involves replacing the diseased liver with a healthy, donated liver from another person. For living liver donation, a portion of the liver is removed based on the size of the recipient. At least 30% of the donor’s liver remains; the part of the liver left behind is expected to grow back to normal size within a few weeks.

With the option for Johnson to receive a living donor, his wait time was significantly reduced. He also knew a healthy living organ would function longer and better than one from a deceased donor.

Johnson is 63. He is the father of a son and a daughter, and a grandfather to six. He wanted to live long enough to watch his grandchildren grow up.

“Once we found out the issues with is heart, I sent text message to family member to see if there was anyone who would be tested as a donor,” said his wife.

That’s when Toni Cahill emerged as a match. Cahill, 39, is Johnson’s niece by marriage. She and her husband, Brian, recently moved just a few minutes from the Johnsons. They attend the same church, in the same community where Johnson grew up – a mile from his boyhood home in the country. He was the third of six children and remembers spending time playing with his siblings in the woods and following his dad who was a mechanic and sprint car driver.

Like her husband, Sharon, grew up in a large family - she was next to the youngest of nine. Her family harvested a tobacco farm and her childhood was spent playing on grapevines and sliding down hills into a nearby creek.

Her graduating class had fewer than 100 students. Faith, family and community are everything to the couple.

So, when Cahill decided to be tested as a match, the Johnsons knew that she was motivated by similar beliefs.

“She is selfless. She believes in helping others. This was just one more act of her faith,” said Sharon Johnson. “If you stop and think about how big our family is, this has impacted not one but many lives.”

Cahill works as an intake coordinator for a foster care agency. She and her husband have a biological son, 17, and a biological daughter, 12. They adopted their youngest daughter, 5, and are in the process of adopting another child, 7. She is also involved with the women’s ministry at her church.

“I didn’t think I’d be a match because we are not blood related, but family is family and it turns out we are both Type 0,” said Cahill. “He’s so sweet. I’ve always loved him and so when I knew he needed a transplant, I said ‘let’s do this.’”

Johnson received his living liver transplant on May 24, 2021, in the care of Dr. Chandrashekhar Kubal. Although he’s had a few setbacks since his transplant, Johnson said he is on the road to recovery. In the year ahead he hopes to continue spending time with his grandchildren and maybe travel again.

During the holidays Cahill said seeing her uncle healthy again especially moved her.

“Seeing him have a new lease on life - that’s the best part. He was so ill for so long and now seeing him be able to enjoy his family at Christmas, that’s what it’s all about,” she said.

Johnson’s wife said going into the transplant her husband was so concerned for Cahill’s health he had to have a heart to heart talk with her.

“He was more worried about her than he was himself,” she said. “He said that he would never be able to live with himself if something happened to her.” Cahill assured him that she was led by her faith.

And now that they are joined by that heartfelt understanding, Johnson said, “I don’t really know how to express my thanks. She’s my angel. That’s all I can say.”

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