Baie Verte woman making most of life a year after liver transplant

Cory Hurley cory.hurley@tc.tc
Published on December 1, 2016

Coretta Stacey didn’t know if she was going to live long enough to receive a liver transplant last year.

©Submitted photo

Coretta Stacey had a lot to be thankful for this past Thanksgiving, and being alive to give thanks with her family topped that list.

That is likely true for most people. For this Baie Verte woman, however, a year ago it was no guarantee. In fact, there were times she thought it wouldn’t happen. 

During some routine blood work in 2010, an erroneous check of her liver profile by her doctor resulted in some unexpected findings. Elevated liver enzymes prompted some further testing, and later an ultrasound revealed large bile ducts. Some further tests, and the cancer word was tossed about. 

This went on for some time, trips from the White Bay town to specialists in central, western and eastern Newfoundland and Labrador became commonplace. Tests and diagnoses ensued.  

Primary biliary cirrhosis or primary sclerosing cholangitis, or some combination of the two — autoimmune cholangitis — was likely. Eventually, cirrhosis of the liver was the official diagnosis. Not much of a drinker and not wanting the stigma attached to her, despite her failing health, she kept her condition fairly private. Close friends and family knew, but very few others. 

The mother of a soon-to-be teenage daughter, Jenna, privacy was important to her. Even now, she says the cause is not as important to her as the treatment, care and recovery. 

Surgeries were scheduled and cancelled as doctor visits continued. Eventually, in 2014, a liver transplant was deemed the only option. January of the following year, she went to Halifax, where they have the Multi-Organ Transplant Program. During the week-long assessment, it was determined her liver enzyme levels were too low and she wouldn’t be placed on the transplant list. The assessment was completed regardless, in case her health failed.

It was a difficult wait to receive a liver for Coretta Stacey, one that almost cost her her life.
Submitted photo

The crash

Later that year, that was the case. By the summer, it was near daily trips to the Baie Verte Peninsula Health Centre. Doctors had warned of the possibility of a crash, and the summer of 2015, she did.

Stacey wound up in the intensive care unit of the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s. There she would remain until she would get a transplant. Problem was, her health was failing drastically. She went through kidney failure and dialysis. She had problems breathing, and the strength of her heart became a concern. The 40-year-old was deemed too weak to even undergo a transplant.

“More than once I thought about dying,” Stacey said. “More than once I thought I would die.”

In 2001, she and her husband Charles lost a son due to a rare genetic disorder. He lived less than six months, and that pain has never gone away. Stacey said she refused to let her daughter experience that pain, and have Charles go through it again. So, she fought.

“I remember seeing my mom for the first time,” she recalled of her time in the ICU in St. John’s. “And I never thought I would see her again.”

Stacey fought through the tears and emotions to continue to talk about her family and what they went through during this time.

“It was hard … hard to fight,” she said. “But, I did it all for my daughter. I had no choice … I couldn’t imagine her growing up without me. So, I put all my energy into that.”

As time passed, Stacey admitted doubting the transplant would ever happen. She remembers many times hearing the phone ring outside her hospital room, and waiting to see if her door would open afterwards. Between her failing health and the wait, it was difficult to keep faith. She wanted to do a living donor transplant, but it was determined there wasn’t enough time to go through that process.

Outside of the strength she found through her husband, and all he did for her, a lot of credit goes to the medical team in St. John’s for getting her strong enough to receive the transplant, she said.

The transplant

Thanksgiving Day weekend 2015, a nurse came into her room and told her she was going to Halifax for a new liver. 

“I just cried,” she said.

Within minutes, they were on an air ambulance to Nova Scotia.

With memories of losing a child of her own, it came with mixed emotions. She realized for her to live, somebody must have died.

“I always assume it is a young male,” she said. “I don’t know why. Maybe it is. Maybe there is something telling me it is.

“To know that somebody’s heart had to break — like mine did when I lost my child — for me to get my life, for me to get my second chance, was hard.”

Stacey said she had to return to the operating room following the transplant to fix a bleed, but the surgery was a success.

She was very weak following the transplant. She returned to the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s for monitoring and to begin her recovery. When she built up enough strength, she would be able to go home to Baie Verte.

Physiotherapy was tough, she recalls, but again she fought through it. By Christmas of 2015, she said she started to feel better. Things were returning to normal. Being around family and friends during the holidays, and being able to do things for herself and others again, was a blessing.

By January, Stacey was back to doing a strength program at the local fitness centre. This past summer, she was back helping out at the local pool with the swim team — the start of resuming the many volunteer duties she did as a parent and community member.

There are days when Stacey doesn’t feel any different than she did when she was healthy. Sometimes, the scars are a reminder of the near death experience and the transplant that saved her life. However, there are many days she wonders about the person who allowed that to happen and their family.

Through the agency, she wrote to the family. She has yet to receive a response. She would love to be able to meet them, and personally tell them how grateful she is for this gift of life.

Just over a year later, there is a lot to be thankful for, but Stacey deserves a lot of that credit too.

“I fought my own battle,” she said. “Thankfully, I won. I hope I continue to win. Should things go south again, I’ll take it one day at a time and fight again.”

Importance of organ donation

Coretta Stacey of Baie Verte is doing well, and thankful, a year after having a liver transplant.
Submitted photo

Organ donor recipient Coretta Stacey of Baie Verte is one of many Canadians who believe the federal regulations around the process should be changed to an opt-out policy. 

A presumption that people will donate unless they opt out would expect to be a major help to the more than 4,500 Canadians waiting on kidneys for transplant. Every day, four of those people die waiting. And, that’s just one of the organs. 

Stacey received a liver transplant just over a year ago, shortly after she lay in a hospital bed wondering if she would live long enough to become a recipient. 

Canadians organ donation rate is among the lowest in the industrialized world. While 90 per cent are said to support donation, only 25 per cent have registered. 

Stacey believes it is just a matter of complacency. People are not making the effort to become a donor, simply because it takes an effort. 

“Too many people are dying, waiting for a transplant,” she said. “It is so frustrating waiting for an organ, just left there with your thoughts.” 

Stacey also recalls the media revolving around the western Newfoundland family of York Harbour’s Derek Park in 2015. The family declined his wishes to become a donor because a team no longer travelled the province to collect the organs. His body would have been flown to St. John’s for organ removal. 

Stacey doesn’t agree with that process. 

“It is such a difficult time to lose a family member, but organ donation is such an important choice to make,” she said. “Everything must be done to make it as easy and comfortable for the family to make that decision.” 

Being an organ donor can save up to eight lives and enhance up to 75 lives. 

Education and awareness are the biggest things that need improvement, says Stacey.