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Husband donates liver to wife: ‘There was never any question I’d do it’

IU Health University Hospital

Husband donates liver to wife: ‘There was never any question I’d do it’

There were seizures, there was jaundice. As Heather Buchanan’s health declined, it was her husband who provided her with a new life-saving organ. February 14th is National Donor Day – an observance to spread awareness and education about organ, eye, and tissue donation.

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

She had been sick for two years. There were neurological episodes that first led doctors to believe Heather Buchanan had epilepsy.

It was her husband of three years, Shane Buchanan, 39, who first suspected liver disease. Heather showed signs of jaundice, she had a loss of appetite, she was tired, and she experienced swelling in her legs and ankles. She complained of bloating.

By February of 2019 she was in the care of IU Health Dr. Howard Masuoka, who specializes in hepatology. Her diagnosis: Alcoholic sclerosis of the liver.

“Everyone knows alcohol can lead to liver damage but I didn’t think I drank that much,” said Heather. She estimates she consumed about 20-ounces of vodka a day – sometimes more.

“It was on and off. I had three pregnancies and I didn’t drink then and there were medicines that I was on so I didn’t drink as much,” said Heather, 37. Together, she and Shane have four boys ages 5, 13, 17, and 18. They both attended Booneville High School in Southern Indiana but didn’t meet until years later through a dating site.

Heather pursued a career working in a doctor’s office and Shane works in highway construction as a traffic control technician.

“From our first date we knew we were in love. We can laugh about anything and everything,” said Heather. “She’s my best friend,” added Shane.

As Heather’s health began to decline, she could no longer work. She was bedridden and she needed insurance. They were married at the Posey County Courthouse on Sept. 20, 2017. After several hospital visits, they were referred to IU Health, where doctors were introducing a living liver donor program.

Living liver donors are screened and must be in good physical and mental health, and between the ages of 18-55 years of age. Several tests evaluate if a potential donor is a viable match – including blood tests, urine screening, chest x-rays, an EKG, CT and MRI. Once a donor has completed screening, surgery is performed to remove a portion of the donor’s liver. At least 30 percent of the donor’s liver remains and typically grows back to normal size within a few weeks.

On January 21st, under the care of IU Health Dr. Chandrashekhar Kubal, Shane donated a portion of his liver that was transplanted to his wife.

“I don’t have a lot of hospital experience but I didn’t hesitate. There is no question I’d do it again,” said Shane. “The surgeon is excellent and the care has been excellent.” After surgery, just a few rooms separated them.

“For a while I had the stamina of an 80-year-old man,” said Shane, who walked the hospital hallway to visit his wife just a couple days after surgery. “I would tell others if you can save someone’s life - especially someone you love it’s a small price to pay.”

Since surgery, the couple makes return trips to Indianapolis for weekly clinical check ups. They leave their four-bedroom home in Wadesville, Ind. at 2:30 a.m. to make the three-hour drive to Indianapolis.

“I’m finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” said Heather. She is slowly reducing her pain medication and is looking forward to new health.

“We gave up drinking the day before my diagnosis,” she said. “I don’t want to go back to that. I’m looking forward.”

What is she looking forward to?

“We love to go thrift shopping together – finding things to decorate our home,” said Heather. “We like to do anything and everything together – sometimes it’s just hanging out at home,” she said. “As soon as she’s feeling up to it, I’d like to take a honeymoon,” said Shane. “We never got one and I’d love to go to St. Lucia.”

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