When the phone call that Kerry Forbush had been waiting for came, she didn’t answer it.
The 29-year-old Manchester mother and teacher had been on a waiting list for a donor liver since last January, and had been anxiously waiting for the call that would change her life. But the number that showed up on her phone last week seemed to be coming from Florida, “and she thought it was a robo-call,” says her mother, Laurie Kempf.
It was from the transplant team at Massachusetts General Hospital, who fortunately left Forbush a voicemail message: A donor had been found.
The New Hampshire Union Leader first chronicled Kerry Forbush’s diagnosis with a rare liver disease, biliary atresia, just weeks after her birth, in 1991. After successful surgery, she had a normal, active childhood, went to college, and became a preschool teacher and a mother.
Forbush’s condition suddenly worsened last fall; tests showed she was in end-stage liver disease and she was placed on the list for a liver transplant.
Kempf, who has been at her daughter’s side throughout her medical journey, said they got the call on Aug. 5; they had to be in Boston the next morning, ready for surgery.
Because of her medical condition, Forbush was not a candidate for a partial liver transplant; she had to wait for a complete organ from a deceased donor. But she was enrolled in a trial program at Mass. General that allows patients to receive livers from donors who were positive for Hepatitis C, something that previously was not permitted.
Now that a treatment for Hepatitis C exists, these organs are acceptable for transplant. And in the midst of a drug epidemic, more of these organs are becoming available.
And that’s how Forbush got her liver transplant on Aug. 6.
There was a sobering “reality check” moment before the surgery, when her surgeon explained the potential risks to Forbush, Kempf said.
“He said once we take that liver out of you, if we have a problem putting the new one in, you’re not going to survive,” Kempf said. ”But we had no choice. We had to go forward.”
Kempf had a chance to embrace her daughter before they wheeled her away to surgery. Then came nine hours of waiting for word. “It was agony,” she said.
Twelve hours after they arrived at the hospital, Kerry’s surgeon appeared in the waiting room. “I could tell as soon as he walked in the room that it went well,” Kempf said. “He was just beaming. He said it couldn’t have gone any better.”
Four days after her surgery, Forbush’s transplant team was impressed enough with her progress to recommend she recover at home instead of staying in the hospital.
So she’s back home in Manchester now with her fiance, Matt Stidd, and their 21-month-old daughter, Willow. She’s on anti-rejection drugs, antibiotics and a Hepatitis C treatment, and she’s in a lot of pain, according to her mom.
Forbush has to get lab tests three times a week and see her doctors in Boston once a week. But “she looks good,” Kempf said. And tests show her new liver is functioning well.
Kempf never told Kerry her greatest fear as she watched her daughter’s skin and eyes reveal the telltale yellow color of liver disease these past months.
“I read all the statistics about organ donation and how so many people die waiting for organs, and I was so afraid she was going to be another one of them, deep inside,” she said.
“I just can’t even believe that she got a liver. This really has happened,” she said.
By hospital rules, they know nothing about her donor other than the fact that it was a young person. Six months after the transplant, if Forbush wishes — and she does — she can write a letter to her donor’s family. Then it’s up to them whether they want to make contact, Kempf said.
Kempf said her entire family is grateful for what these generous strangers chose to do in the depths of their grief. “They could have just put their family member to rest without a thought for anyone else,” she said. “But they made the greatest choice to save somebody else, and give them life.”
What would she say to them? “Thank you for saving my daughter’s life,” Kempf said. “There’s no greater gift than what they did.”
Kerry Forbush’s family has started a fund to help pay for her medical expenses: www.gofundme.com/f/kerry-forbush