A second chance at life

Feb 23, 2018, 16:21 PM by Shannon Porter
Amanda and Keith Johnson smile for a photo as they cut into their vow renewal cake.
At a young age, Amanda Johnson made a promise to herself to never take life for granted. That promise was put to the test late last year as serious health problems had her fighting for her life and wondering if she would be around to celebrate her 10th wedding anniversary.

“We had planned to have a vow renewal, but I thought I was going to have to cancel,” Johnson said.

In the weeks leading up to her Dec. 1 anniversary, Johnson was in need of a life-saving liver transplant. She was extremely ill, suffering from nonalcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, also known as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

Johnson, who never drank alcohol, was surprised to hear the word “cirrhosis” in her diagnosis. She—like many people— associated the word only with the effects of long-term heavy drinking. In reality, cirrhosis means scarring of the liver, regardless of underlying cause, said Dr. Jeffrey Fair, chief of transplant surgery at UTMB and Johnson’s surgeon.

It turns out that Johnson’s condition was related to weight issues she had dealt with most of her life. She suffered from diabetes that was difficult to manage with medicine and diet and ultimately had bariatric surgery to help her with weight loss. But soon after the weight loss surgery in 2015, she started experiencing significant swelling in her legs and feet.

After meeting with doctors at another hospital, a friend recommended Johnson come to UTMB to find out what was wrong. Testing confirmed that Johnson was in liver failure and would need a transplant.

She was quickly referred to the UTMB Liver Transplant Program, which was established in 2008. The program offers patient-centered care and focuses on liver transplants; management of chronic liver disease, cirrhosis and liver failure; and other hepatobiliary services. Fair came onboard in 2016 to lead the program. Since then, UTMB has performed 34 liver transplants with a 97 percent survival rate.

Johnson stayed on the transplant list from her initial diagnosis in 2015 until Nov. 27, 2017—a day she will never forget.

“They called that day and told me, ‘We have a liver for you,’” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Johnson’s transplant went well and her recovery was faster and better than expected, considering her condition before the surgery. Johnson was only in the hospital for two weeks after the transplant when some transplant patients have to stay longer. The average length of stay is 17 days, Fair said. Johnson credits her fast recovery to the outstanding care she received from the entire UTMB staff.

“Every nurse from ICU to the surgical floor, doctors, physical therapists, even the housekeeping staff were all so encouraging and sweet,” Johnson said. “When you become a patient at UTMB, you become family—they really care.”

By the time she was released, her 10th wedding anniversary date had already passed, but Johnson still wanted to celebrate. So, on Jan. 13, surrounded by friends and family, she and her husband commemorated her recovery and their marriage.

And, she’s keeping her original promise not to take life for granted. “I want to make this new life better than my life before,” Johnson said.

Transplant Did You Know?That includes pursuing a passion that had been hindered by her illness: singing. Johnson is now the music director and youth leader at her church, and she’s making plans to learn how to play music. She also wants to explore a career in health care, where she can advocate for and share her experience with others.

“I was so close to death and didn’t even know it until I came to UTMB,” Johnson said. “I have been given a second chance. Now I have a new body, a new life— I couldn’t be more thankful.”